Rachel Schneider & Jonathan Morduch: Why do people make the financial decisions they make?

Deep within the American Dream lies the belief that hard work and steady saving will ensure a comfortable retirement and a Financialbetter life for one’s children. But in a nation experiencing unprecedented prosperity, even for many families who seem to be doing everything right, this ideal is still out of reach. In The Financial Diaries, Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider draw on the groundbreaking U.S. Financial Diaries, which follow the lives of 235 low- and middle-income families as they navigate through a year. Through the Diaries, Morduch and Schneider challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save—and they identify the true causes of distress and inequality for many working Americans. Combining hard facts with personal stories, The Financial Diaries presents an unparalleled inside look at the economic stresses of today’s families and offers powerful, fresh ideas for solving them. The authors talk about the book, what was surprising as they conducted their study, and how their findings affect the conversation on inequality in a new Q&A:

Why did you write this book?
We have both spent our careers thinking about households and consumer finance, and our field has reams and reams of descriptive data about what people do—savings rates, the number of overdrafts, the size of their tax refunds. We have lots of financial information but very little of the existing data helped us understand why—why people make the financial decisions they make, and why they get tripped up. So we decided to spend time with a group of families, get to know them very well, and track every dollar they earned, spent, borrowed, and shared over the course of one year. By collecting new and different kinds of information, we were able to understand a lot of the why, and gained a new view of what’s going on in America.

What did you learn about the financial lives of low- and moderate-income families in your year-long study?
We saw that the financial lives of a surprising number of families looks very different from the standard story that most people expect. The first and most prominent thing we saw is how unsteady, how volatile households’ income and expenses were for many. The average family in our study had more than five months a year when income was 25% above or below their average.

That volatility made it hard to budget and save—and it meant that plans were often derailed. How people were doing had less to do with the income they expected to earn in total during the year and more to do with when that income hit paychecks and how predictable that was. Spending emergencies added a layer of complexity. In other words, week-to-week and month-to-month cash flow problems dominated many families’ financial lives. Their main challenges weren’t resisting temptation to overspend in the present, or planning appropriately for the long term but how to make sure they would have enough cash for the needs they knew were coming soon.

The resulting anxiety, frustration, and a sense of financial insecurity affected families that were technically classified as middle class.

How does this tie into the economic anxiety that fueled Trump’s election?
The families we talked to revealed deep anxieties that are part of a broader backdrop for understanding America today. That anxiety is part of what fueled Trump, but it also fueled Bernie Sanders and, to an extent, Hillary Clinton. A broad set of the population feels rightly that the system just isn’t working for them.

For example, we met Becky and Jeremy, a couple with two kids who live in small town Ohio where Trump did well. Jeremy is a mechanic who fixes trucks on commission. Even though he works full-time, the size of his paychecks vary wildly depending on how many trucks come in each day. This volatility in their household income means that while they’re part of the middle class when you look at their annual income, they dipped below the poverty line six months out of the year.

One day we met with Becky, who was deciding whether or not to make their monthly mortgage payment a couple of weeks early. She had enough money on hand, but she was wavering between paying it now so she could rest easy knowing it was taken care of, or holding onto the money because she didn’t know what was going to happen in the next couple weeks, and was afraid she might need the money for something else even more urgent. She was making decisions like this almost every day, which created not only anxiety but a sense of frustration about always feeling on the edge.

Ultimately, Jeremy decided to switch to a lower-paying job with a bigger commute doing the exact same work – but now he’s paid on salary. They opted for stability over mobility. Becky and Jeremy helped us see how the economic anxiety people feel is not only about having enough money, but about the structure of their economic lives and the risk, volatility, and insecurity that have become commonplace in our economy.

One of the most interesting insights from your book is that while these families are struggling, they’re also working really hard and coming up with creative ways to cope. Can you share an example?
Janice, a casino worker in Mississippi, told us about a system she created with multiple bank accounts. She has one bank account close to her she uses for bill paying. But she also has a credit union account where she has part of her paycheck automatically deposited. This bank is an hour away, has inconvenient hours, and when they sent her an ATM card, she cut it in half. She designed a level of inconvenience for that account on purpose, in order to make it harder to spend that money. She told us she will drive the hour to that faraway bank when she has a “really, really need”—an emergency or cost that is big enough that she’ll overcome the barriers she put up on purpose. One month, she went down there because her grandson needed school supplies, which was a “really, really need” for her. The rest of the time, it’s too far away to touch. And that’s exactly how she designed it.

We found so many other examples like this one, where people are trying to create the right mix of structure and flexibility in their financial lives. There’s a tension between the structure that helps you resist temptation and save, and the flexibility you need when life conspires against you. But we don’t have financial products, services, and ideas that are designed around this need and the actual challenges that families are facing. This is why Janice has all these different banks she uses for different purposes—to get that mix of structure and flexibility that traditional financial services do not provide.

How does this tie into the conversation we’ve been having about inequality over the last decade or so?
Income and wealth inequality are real. But those two inequalities of income and assets are hiding this other really important inequality, which is about stability. What we learned in talking to families is that they’re not thinking about income and wealth inequality on a day-to-day basis—they’re worrying about whether they have enough money today, tomorrow, and next week. The problem is akin to what happens in businesses. They might be profitable on their income statement, but they ran out of cash and couldn’t make payroll next week.

This same scenario is happening with the families we met. We saw situations where someone has enough income or is saving over time, but nonetheless, they can’t make ends meet right now. That instability is the hidden inequality that’s missing from our conversation about wealth and income inequality.

How much of this comes down to personal responsibility? Experts like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey argue you can live on a shoestring if you’re just disciplined. Doesn’t that apply to these families?
The cornerstone of traditional personal finance advice from people like Orman and Ramsey is budgeting and discipline. But you can’t really do that without predictability and control.

We met one woman who is extremely disciplined about her budget, but the volatility of her income kept tripping her up. She is a tax preparer, which means she earns half her income in the first three months of the year. She has a spreadsheet where she runs all her expenses, down to every taxi she thinks she might need to take. She budgets really explicitly and when she spends a little more on food one week, she goes back and looks at her budget, and changes it for the next few weeks to compensate. Her system requires extreme focus and discipline, but it’s still not enough to make her feel financially secure. Traditional personal finance advice just isn’t workable for most families because it doesn’t start with the actual problems that families face.

What can the financial services industry do to better serve low- and moderate-income families?
The financial services industry has a big job in figuring out how to deal with cash flow volatility at the household level, because most of the products they have generated are based on an underlying belief that households have a regular and predictable income. So their challenge is to develop new products and services—and improve existing ones—that are designed to help people manage their ongoing cash flow needs and get the right money at the right time.

There are a few examples of innovative products that are trying to help households meet the challenges of volatility and instability. Even is a new company that helps people smooth out their income by helping them automatically save spikes, or get a short-term “boost” to cover dips. Digit analyzes earning and spending patterns to find times when someone has a little extra on hand and put it aside, again automatically. Propel is looking to make it much easier and faster for people to get access to food stamps when they need them. There are a number of organizations trying to bring savings groups or lending circles, a way of saving and borrowing with friends and family common everywhere in the developing world, to more people in the United States.

There is lots of scope for innovation to meet the needs of households—the biggest challenge is seeing what those needs are, and how different they are from the standard way of thinking about financial lives and problems.

Jonathan Morduch is professor of public policy and economics at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He is the coauthor of Portfolios of the Poor (Princeton) and other books. Rachel Schneider is senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, an organization dedicated to improving the financial health of Americans.

Summer Vacation: Archaeologist-style

by Eric Cline

Each summer in June, the annual migration of archaeologists begins. Summertime is when most university excavations take place, because the academics that run them are on summer vacation, as are the post-grads and graduate students who make up the staff. The undergraduate students and the volunteers from all walks of life, most of them checking off an item on their bucket list, are similarly free, or are at least able to take their vacation days to participate for a few days or even a week or two.

In a few days, I’ll be heading for our dig at Tel Kabri, located in northern Israel, where we are excavating a Canaanite palace dating back almost four thousand years, with the oldest and largest wine cellar yet found in the ancient Near East. We’ll have about a dozen staff members and almost seventy volunteers (or team members, as we call them) working over the course of six weeks, and we’re on the small side—some digs have closer to two hundred team members who participate over the course of a single season.

Each team member covers the costs of their room and board, as well as their round trip airfare, for the opportunity to participate in what will be, for most of them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some will enjoy it so much that they return the next season; others will be glad to return home after realizing that it involves much more dirt, sweat, and labor that is both much more intensive (think picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows) and painstaking (think dental tools and small brushes) than they ever expected.

The day will begin at 4:45 am, when the team members board the bus that will take them from the field school where we live to the site, which is located about ten minutes away. Retrieving our tools from the storage unit—which is essentially an old railway car minus the wheels—we are digging by 5:00 am, while it is still chilly enough to wish for a sweatshirt or fleece jacket, but those are soon shed as the temperature climbs and perspiration creates damp patches on t-shirts and tank tops.

The first potsherds appear almost as soon as the first pickaxes dig into the soil and are tossed into a plastic bucket; much later, in the afternoon, they will be washed and laid out to dry, so that the experts in the staff can examine and date them, based on a variety of characteristics including color, tempering, decoration, and so on. Our sherds indicate that we are digging in levels from the Middle Bronze Age, dating to the 18th through 16th centuries BC.

Soon a patch of plaster appears in one trench and trowels and patishes—small hand picks—replace the larger pickaxes, as more delicate work is now necessary. The potsherds continue to appear—for each ancient vessel shatters into dozens of pieces when it breaks, all of which remain to be found, for they are non-biodegradable once fired in a kiln. The pottery buckets fill up at an astonishing pace, to the eventual chagrin of the team members, who know they will have to wash each piece separately and by hand that afternoon.

Eventually, after what seems an eternity, a half-hour break is called at 8:00 am, so that staff and team members alike can fill their growling stomachs with eggs, cheese, tuna, tomatoes, and/or chocolate spread on large rolls. The largest line is for coffee, with team members working in different areas of the site good-naturedly exchanging details of their morning’s activities and discoveries with each other.

Soon enough the breakfast break is over and the team members will return to their areas, working until 1:00 pm before climbing back on board the bus and returning to the field school for a hot lunch and a few hours of free time. Most will nap in their air conditioned rooms, though some will venture to the swimming pool and sunbathe, as if they hadn’t already gotten enough sun during the morning.

Late afternoon sees the pottery washing, as well as data entry on the laptop computers, and various other assorted tasks. Dinner is at 7:00 pm, followed by a lecture, for many of the students are doing this for college credit, and the older team members are simply interested in learning about the history and archaeology of the area, or the nuances of how the various specialists do their work and analyses. Lights are out by 10:30 pm, for a much-needed six hours of sleep before the whole routine begins again for another day.

To some this will seem abject misery; for me it is heaven. I’ve been doing this almost every summer for more than thirty years and it never gets old, even though I have. There is nothing else like the thrill of excavation and discovery—not knowing what you will find in the next minute, hour, day, or week. At Kabri we’ve found fragments of wall paintings, large jars that once held wine, bits and pieces of ivory, gold, and other materials, and are slowly beginning to reconstruct the life of people who once lived in this palace nearly four thousand years ago.

What will this summer bring? I have no idea, and that’s the best part about it. I’ll let you know in August what we found. What I do know is that what we are doing is fun, exciting, AND important. We, and the other teams of archaeologists who will be in the field this summer, are excavating and rescuing the remains of past civilizations—the details of our story, the human story.

 

ClineEric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. An active archaeologist, he has excavated and surveyed in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the United States. His many books include 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed and Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology.

 

Eric Cline departed on his travels on June 14. Check this space for updates from the field.

Francisco Bethencourt: Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’

Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon
6th May to 3rd September 2017
Curator: Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor, King’s College London,
and author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

When Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century was translated into Portuguese I was invited by the director of Padrão dos Descobrimentos to organize an exhibition on that subject there. The monument had been created in 1960 by the Salazar regime to commemorate Portuguese overseas exploration and colonialism, obviously ignoring the suffering inflicted on other people. I immediately accepted the challenge to transform a comprehensive book into an exhibition naturally based on images and focusing on the Portuguese case. I needed an argument, a narrative, and a structure.

I decided to focus this exhibition on two interlinked realities: racism, understood as prejudice against those of different ethnic origins, combined with discriminatory actions; and citizenship, seen as the right to live, work, and participate in the political life of a country, equally involving duties and responsibilities. The tension between exclusion and integration lies at the heart of this exhibition. I invite viewers to reflect on various historical realities and recent developments, with the help of objects—paintings, sculptures, engravings, shackles, manillas, ceramics, posters, photographs, and videos. Images are presented in a crude way, but they also reveal subtle contradictions, hinting at what lies beyond outward appearances.

The exhibition is arranged into two parts, early modern and modern, and six sections: a) the hostility towards Jews and Moors living in medieval Portugal, which was renewed after forced conversions; b) a focus on people of African origin who were enslaved and transported to Portugal, Brazil, and Asia; c) the representations of native peoples of the New World and Asia, which led to the first European conception of a hierarchy of the world’s people; d) the Portuguese colonies, where slave labor was replaced by forced labor; e) the contradictory realities of the 20th century, in the colonies and Portugal alike; f) the dynamics involved in the attempt to repair the fractures in the contemporary and post-colonial period.

Racism was always confronted with informal forms of integration, which became predominant in the postcolonial period. The assertion of citizenship followed the Revolution of April 1974 and the independence of the colonies in 1975. It is a new period, still under the shadow of informal racism, but in which new values of legal equality have been supported by the state. The anti-racist norm became a reality, still to be systematically implemented. The last section of the exhibition shows the recent work of Portuguese and African artists, who use colonial memory to reflect on new issues of collective identity.

During the period under consideration, Muslim expulsion took place, as did the forced conversion of Jewish people, the slave trade, the colonization of territories in Africa, America and Asia, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and immigration.

The exhibition aims to encourage the public to question past and present relations between peoples, combining emigration with immigration, exclusion and integration, lack of rights and access to citizenship.

BethencourtFrancisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, and the author of The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834.

Steven and Ben Nadler: Happy Father’s Day

by Ben Nadler

Nadler

It’s now been two years since I began a collaboration with my dad, a philosophy professor, on a graphic book. He was wanting to do a philosophy book that would reach a wide readership, especially high school and college students, and I was fresh out of art school and looking for something big to do. When he suggested we do a project together, I didn’t hesitate at all. With his knowledge of seventeenth-century philosophy and my training in illustration, we could do something really original and exciting. Although he was in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was living in Seattle, we were able to work through hundreds of emails and phone calls. He would send me the text for the book, and I’d give him some comments and suggestions on what seemed to work and what didn’t. Then I would send him my pencil sketches and he would give me feedback as I tried to make these philosophers and their abstract ideas into a visually engaging and philosophically and historically informative story. Now, when people ask me what it was like working with my dad, it is hard to come up with even one example of friction or disagreement that took place during the process. We are both really happy with the final result, a 200-page graphic book that makes seventeenth-century philosophy—perhaps the most important and fascinating period in the history of philosophy—accessible and entertaining. In addition to having this book to show for our work, which I am incredibly proud of, I now have a far greater understanding of what my dad does for a living. And because he has an understanding of what it is about comics I find so compelling, we’re even closer now than before we worked together.

 

NadlerSteven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Madison. Ben Nadler is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram at @bennadlercomics. They are the author and illustrator of Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.

Elizabeth Anderson: Is your workplace a dictatorship?

AndersonOne in four American workers says their workplace is a “dictatorship.” Yet that number probably would be even higher if we recognized most employers for what they are—private governments with sweeping authoritarian power over our lives, on duty and off. We normally think of government as something only the state does, yet many of us are governed far more—and far more obtrusively—by the private government of the workplace. In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson argues that the failure to see this stems from long-standing confusions. These confusions explain why, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still talk as if free markets make workers free—and why so many employers advocate less government even while they act as dictators in their businesses. Recently she took time to answer some questions about her new book.

Most contemporary discussions of work focus on wages, benefits, and unemployment.  You want to focus on the power of employers over workers.  How does that matter for workers today?

EA: Millions of workers in the United States labor under humiliating and abusive conditions. Most poultry workers, for example, aren’t allowed to use the bathroom during their shift, and are told to wear diapers to work. The vast majority of restaurant workers suffer from sexual harassment. Managers scream at warehouse workers when they can’t keep up with the grueling pace, or get injured on the job. They search workers’ bodies and personal property, and listen in on their conversations with co-workers. These conditions aren’t inherent in these types of work. The aren’t like the dangers that firefighters unavoidably face. They are imposed by employers. Employers can do this because they have power over workers and can threaten their livelihoods if they don’t submit. This kind of unaccountable power is objectionable even when workers are paid decently. Many professional and managerial workers who enjoy good pay are pressured by their bosses to contribute to political candidates their bosses prefer, and know that their contributions are being monitored. Workers up and down the organization chart are bullied by their bosses. It’s high time that we drew attention to these problems.  Work doesn’t have to be this way.

You claim that current political discussions confuse government with the state.  Why is that a point of confusion, and why is it important to distinguish the two?

EA: Politicians are constantly telling people that “the government” is interfering with their freedom.  What they mean by “government” is the organs of the state—the Federal government, or agencies of the 50 states. This way of talking misleadingly suggests that if we only got the state out of our hair, we’d be perfectly free to lead our lives as we choose.  It masks the fact that other kinds of governments, with unelected leaders, also rule our lives. The workplace is a type of government, and bosses are the rulers of this government. It’s important to recognize this reality, because managers often regulate workers’ lives far more intrusively and minutely than state governments regulate the lives of ordinary citizens. Most workers are not free under the government of the workplace, because they have no voice, no representation in that government. State regulation of workplaces can actually make them more free by setting constraints on what their bosses can do to them—for example, barring harassment and discriminatory treatment.

You’re concerned about the conditions for workers today.  Yet you begin your discussion with the Levellers of the mid-17th century.  What can we learn from them?

EA: The Levellers were a group of egalitarian activists in mid-17th century England. They advanced a way of talking about free market society as liberating for workers. They saw that the state was not the only government that ruled their lives. As small craftsmen, they were also governed by the monopolistic guilds. Freeing up markets meant ending monopoly control, which would enable craft workers like themselves to be their own bosses, and expand the ranks of the self-employed. Other 17th and 18th century figures, including Adam Smith and Tom Paine, similarly believed that freeing up markets would open the way to nearly universal self-employment. Lincoln carried that vision into the mid-19th century. The Industrial Revolution destroyed their ideas of how free markets would make workers free. It bankrupted self-employed craftsmen and forced them to submit to bosses in big factories. We still talk today as if markets make workers free, forgetting that this idea depended on pre-industrial conditions. The originators of free market ideas were vividly aware that wage workers were subjected to the arbitrary rule of their employers, and thought that free markets would make workers free by enabling them to escape rule by bosses. Today, talk of how markets make workers free is magical thinking, masking the reality that bosses govern their lives.

How do you think the governance of the workplace can be improved?

EA: I argue that workers need a voice in how the workplace is governed.  Other measures, such as making it easier for workers to quit, and laws protecting workers’ privacy and off-duty activities from employer meddling, can certainly help. But these can’t substitute for workers having a say in how the workplace is governed. Labor unions once gave voice to more than a third of American workers. These days, outside the state sector, few workers are represented by a union. Yet unions are not the only way that workers can have a say in workplace governance. In Europe, so-called co-determination, in which workplaces are jointly managed by owners and workers, is common. I make the case for exploring different ways workers could have a say, to open up a topic that is hard to frame in today’s impoverished political discourse.

What inspired you to write this book?

EA: I have long been interested in the lived experience of workers, particularly those at the bottom of the labor market. Their experiences are unjustly neglected in today’s public discourse. It should be a major public outrage that so many workers today are denied bathroom breaks, and suffer innumerable other indignities that almost no politicians talk about! Instead, a common response of politicians and the managerial class is: if you don’t like it, then why don’t you quit? The freedom of workers is just the freedom to quit. The inadequacy of this response should be glaring. But today’s public discourse doesn’t help us see why. My research on the history of egalitarianism uncovered the reasons why public discourse is so inadequate, and motivates alternative ways of talking about workers’ complaints, so they can be taken seriously. In the United States, it’s normal to complain about government regulation interfering with our freedom. Once we recognize that employers subject workers to their own dictatorial government, it’s easier to sympathize with workers’ complaints, and think about remedies.

Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It).

Amazons in all Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: What the Wonder Woman Movie Got Right

by Adrienne Mayor

Were Amazons—and their real-life counterparts in antiquity—really as diverse as they appear in Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman opens with a breathtaking  panorama of Themiscyra, the fantasy island populated by powerful women, a paradise magically isolated in time and space from the modern world of men and their ruthless wars. This is where the little wonder girl Diana raised by a triumvirate of formidable females: Queen Hippolyta, General Antiope, and her aunt Melanippe.

In the film, Themiscyra is a self-contained, women-only society of indomitable warriors, devoted to using their deadly expertise to fight on the side of all that is fair and good. We see how idealistic young Diana is rigorously trained for hand-to-hand combat, learning rugged martial arts alongside the toughest, most courageous warrior women the world has ever known: Amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The beginning scenes show us daily life in Themiscyra, with the entire citizenry of warlike women engaged in military exercises. As far as the eye can see, vast fields are filled with female soldiers displaying their prowess in an amazing array of skills. Frame after frame, there are women wrestling, boxing, sword fighting; women performing gymnastic feats on galloping horses; women thrusting daggers and twirling battle-axes; keen-eyed archers on foot and on horseback; acrobatic ninjas and javelin throwers with deadly aim. And in the following scenes of the battle on the beach—pitting the Amazons against boatloads of nasty German soldiers—the dizzying kaleidoscope intensifies, drawing us into a maelstrom of whirling, grappling, leaping, kicking, punching, stabbing, spearing, soaring, kickass female fighters. A crucial element in the  scene’s powerful impact is the perfectly natural diversity of super-fit body types and skin colors.

The magnificence of the Amazons of Themiscyra would have been impossible to pull off with typical Hollywood actresses pretending to be fierce warrior women. It was the brilliant decision of director Patty Jenkins to cast real-life athletes and sports champions as Wonder Woman’s companions.

And that choice ensured that women of Themiscyra display a variety of skills, body sizes, shapes, ages, and skin colors. The diversity is stunning: the Amazons are tall and short, robust and lithe, young and mature, lean and muscle-bound, stolid and mercurial; pale and dark—and everything in between.

In ancient Greek myth, Amazons were warrior women who gloried in battle who dwelled in exotic lands around the Black Sea. Now, thanks to evidence from history, art, and archaeology, we now know that the Amazons were modeled on real nomadic peoples of ancient Scythia, a vast territory that stretched from the real Themiscyran plain on the Black Sea to Mongolia. These myriad tribes had their own languages and were ethnically diverse, but they shared a lifestyle centered on fast horses, bows and arrows, and constant warfare. Their egalitarian lifestyle meant that girls and boys learned to ride, shoot arrows, and fight and the women rode to war with the men.

The Scythians left no writings, but modern archaeology, ancient art, and historical descriptions by their neighbors, the Greeks and Chinese, tell us what they were like. Human remains from Scythian graves show both European and Asian traits, characteristics evident in steppe nomads’ descendants today. Females buried with weapons ranged in age from 10 to 45. Some 2,000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians reported that some Scythians had dark eyes and hair, while others were blond or red-headed with blue eyes. Notably, ancient Chinese chronicles confirm this ethnic diversity, describing some Scythians of Inner Asia as red-haired with green eyes.

Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek artists painted thousands of images of Amazons on vases. The pictures took on more and more realistic details of actual Scythian nomads as they became more familiar with steppe peoples. Vase paintings show tall and petite Amazons, husky and slender Amazons, often together in the same scene. Most have dark hair but there are some blonde and red-haired Amazons. There were ancient Greek tales of Amazons of Africa and Ethiopians were allies of the Amazons in the legendary Trojan War. Vase paintings show African archers dressed like Amazons.

Wonder Woman‘s vision of all kinds of Amazon warriors making themselves physically strong—and then proving their valor in violent combat and emerging victorious—is unprecedented in cinematic history. The grandeur of the fighting scenes—the sheer physicality and diversity of the Amazons—arouses surging emotions of exhilaration in viewers, empowering for women and girls, a revelation for men and boys.

The fact that the multidimensional aspect of Wonder Woman‘s Amazon paradise is grounded in historical reality adds to the glorious authenticity of the film.

So breathtaking is the tribute to strong, real women in the first third of Wonder Woman that I’m joining the chorus of viewers requesting a prequel—we want more Amazons!

MayorAdrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, and the author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

 

 

 

 

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: Conspicuous consumption is over. It’s all about intangibles now

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen’s time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labour and materials are cheap. At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.

However, the democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favoured by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.

Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the ‘aspirational class’. This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it – preferring to spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviours are what I call ‘inconspicuous consumption’. None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.

The rise of the aspirational class and its consumer habits is perhaps most salient in the United States. The US Consumer Expenditure Survey data reveals that, since 2007, the country’s top 1 per cent (people earning upwards of $300,000 per year) are spending significantly less on material goods, while middle-income groups (earning approximately $70,000 per year) are spending the same, and their trend is upward. Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top 1 per cent now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost 6 per cent of top 1 per cent household expenditures, compared with just over 1 per cent of middle-income spending). In fact, top 1 per cent spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.

The vast chasm between middle-income and top 1 per cent spending on education in the US is particularly concerning because, unlike material goods, education has become more and more expensive in recent decades. Thus, there is a greater need to devote financial resources to education to be able to afford it at all. According to Consumer Expenditure Survey data from 2003-2013, the price of college tuition increased 80 per cent, while the cost of women’s apparel increased by just 6 per cent over the same period. Middle-class lack of investment in education doesn’t suggest a lack of prioritising as much as it reveals that, for those in the 40th-60th quintiles, education is so cost-prohibitive it’s almost not worth trying to save for.

While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27 per cent of mothers fulfill this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11 per cent).

Knowing these seemingly inexpensive social norms is itself a rite of passage into today’s aspirational class. And that rite is far from costless: The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one’s bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus and expensive educational institutions that prize this publication and discuss its contents.

Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.

More profoundly, investment in education, healthcare and retirement has a notable impact on consumers’ quality of life, and also on the future life chances of the next generation. Today’s inconspicuous consumption is a far more pernicious form of status spending than the conspicuous consumption of Veblen’s time. Inconspicuous consumption – whether breastfeeding or education – is a means to a better quality of life and improved social mobility for one’s own children, whereas conspicuous consumption is merely an end in itself – simply ostentation. For today’s aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it.Aeon counter – do not remove

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the Price School, University of Southern California. Her latest book is The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (2017). She lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Yair Mintzker: Court Jews, Then and Now

“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is a delightful movie. Directed by Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort,” “Footnote”), it tells the story of Norman Oppenheimer, a gentle if somewhat overbearing middle-aged man, who operates as a wheeler-dealer on the fringe of New York Jewish society. Oppenheimer has a murky past and a gloomy present. He does not seem to have much of a family, a physical office, or even a home. But one day he runs into Micha Eshel, a rising star in Israeli politics, and in the spur of the moment buys him a pair of expensive shoes as a gift. Eshel is touched by the unexpected gesture, and three years later, when he becomes Israel’s prime minister, the two reconnect. What follows is a series of tragicomic events that change both men’s lives forever.

“Norman” has an impressive cast, including Richard Gere in the main role, Lior Ashkenazi as the Israeli politician, and Steven Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, and Hank Azaria. The exaggerated Jewish characters, the over-the-top accents, the Woody Allen-like dialogues, and even the soundtrack, all place “Norman” firmly within contemporary American Jewish culture. This, together with the movie’s many subtle criticisms of Israeli politics, makes it a natural American sequel to Cedar’s wonderful previous film, “Footnote,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 in the category of Best Foreign Film (Cedar is Israeli).

And yet there is more  to “Norman” than immediately meets the eye. Three hundred years ago, there lived another Jewish “fixer” named Oppenheimer whom “Norman” is clearly referencing. His full name was Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, though he is better known today as “Jew Süss.” Just like Cedar’s fictional character, the historical Oppenheimer started too as a small time operator, befriended an up-and-coming politician, and quickly rose to power. And just like his modern namesake, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer eventually also fell from power in scandal and disgrace.

Süss Oppenheimer was born in Heidelberg in 1698, and became in 1733 the “court Jew” (personal banker and advisor) of the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. He quickly became rich and powerful. But when the duke died unexpectedly in 1737, the local authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and finally executed him for a series of made-up charges, including treason and sexual transgressions against Christian women. Extremely well known in other parts of the world, in the United States “Jew Süss” is remembered today mainly through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Geobbels. In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’haretz, Cedar acknowledged the influence of this background story on “Norman.”

What does Cedar gain or lose by drawing a parallel between Norman Oppenheimer and “Jew Süss”? This much is clear: though the historical Oppenheimer was executed nearly three centuries ago, his trial never really ended. Already during his trial, it was clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of the accused’s supposed crimes. Rather, the significance of his story is to be found in the role it came to play as a parable about Jews’ attempts to integrate themselves into modern, non-Jewish society. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but who was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then faced extreme prejudice, prosecution, and eventually death. Thus, at every juncture when Europeans addressed the “Jewish Question,” the story of this man moved to center stage, where it was investigated, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that “Jew Süss” is to the European collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to educated Americans today.

Therein lies “Norman’s” ultimate weakness. Tying it to the story of “Jew Süss” without ever mentioning anti-Semitism is to flatten a three-dimensional story. It’s akin to claiming that the Merchant of Venice is only about Shylock’s relationship with other Jews. Modern Jewish history, in the eighteenth century as well as today, is more than just the story of machers and more, too, than how Jews treat themselves. In that respect, and though it is really quite delightful, “Norman” is an unsatisfying movie. It is not a good retelling of the story of the legendary “Jew Süss.”

 

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

Bart Schultz on The Happiness Philosophers

SchultzIn The Happiness Philosophers, Bart Schultz tells the colorful story of the lives and legacies of the founders of utilitarianism—one of the most profoundly influential yet misunderstood and maligned philosophies of the past two centuries. Best known for arguing that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” utilitarianism was developed by the radical philosophers, critics, and social reformers William Godwin (the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley), Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. Schultz recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

Well, I suppose it represents one of the ways in which I try to “do good better,” as the saying goes.  Among other things, I would like to see it help spark a more critical approach to the so-called “happiness industry,” that vast literature (both popular and academic) on the subject of happiness that far too often lends itself to questionable political (or apolitical) agendas.  The great nineteenth-century utilitarians—Godwin and Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick—developed and deployed their notions of happiness as part of their tireless efforts to advance social reform, e.g. seeking to promote happiness by securing political and social equality for women.  They had their failings, but their energetic reformism was often admirable and their example remains relevant to our political situation today.  Were they around today, they would all be participating in the Women’s Marches, fighting global poverty, and sounding the alarm about global warming.

Many people might not think of utilitarianism in that way, or of academic philosophy as holding that potential.

Yes, but those are views that I am out to challenge.  I hope that my book will inspire people in many different walks of life, academic or not, both to revisit the classical utilitarians and to engage with the wonderful utilitarian philosophizing at work in the world today, as evidenced by the journal Utilitas.  Curiously, although there is a laudable and widespread interest in the work of Peter Singer, particularly the animal liberation and effective altruism movements that he did so much to advance, that interest often fails to extend to the philosophical roots of his utilitarian perspective in the work of Henry Sidgwick, the greatest of the nineteenth century utilitarians.  But if the philosophizing and activism of Singer can so engage people, the work of Sidgwick and the other great utilitarians should be able to inspire them as well.  True, the old, malicious caricatures of the classical utilitarians are still far too common.  In my own experience teaching at the University of Chicago for thirty years, even many of the brightest young students of philosophy harbor views of classical utilitarianism that owe more to the hostile depictions of it by critics than to the classical utilitarian writings themselves.  They have read Michel Foucault on Bentham, but not Bentham; John Rawls on Sidgwick, but not Sidgwick, and so on.

How will your book change that?

By providing fuller portraits of the lives and works of the classical utilitarians taken together.  The philosophizing and the activist life of, say, William Godwin (but the others as well) were genuinely inseparable, and one gets a much better sense of what his philosophy actually meant by looking at how it was realized in his life—for example, in his relationships with the amazing Mary Wollstonecraft and the daughter they had, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.  When students meet classical utilitarianism only through one or another stylized argument (often not one that was actually made by the great utilitarians), as in the popular “Trolley cases,” they do not gain a good sense of the resources of the utilitarian perspective, of its potential as a change agent.  Thus, much of what people today champion as a many-sided liberal education—the kind of education that Martha Nussbaum has done so much to articulate and defend—was in fact defended by such figures as Mill and Sidgwick, on utilitarian grounds.  They loved and promoted the humanities, and often criticized the universities for failing to support philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as for failing to open up educational opportunities for all.  On these topics and others, we still have much to learn from them.

What is your biggest worry or regret about your book?

Naturally, I wish that I could have spent another ten years on it—there is still so much research to do, especially on Bentham.  Also, it breaks my heart that Derek Parfit, who died on January 1st, will not around to read the final published version.  He read various drafts, especially of the chapter on Sidgwick, and was very, very supportive and helpful, as he always has been.  My first major publication was an article contributed to the 1986 Ethics symposium on Reasons and Persons, an article to which he wrote a Reply, and I think that from that time to this I have never published anything without wondering what he would think of it—and fortunately, very often finding out, since he was so generous in his comments.  Some of my more recent work was devoted to On What Matters.  And I was profoundly honored to include him in the book symposium that I edited on Kasia de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer’s recent book, The Point of View of the Universe.  Readers familiar with Derek’s work will see how parts of my Sidgwick chapter, relating to personal identity and other issues, are addressed to some of the points that he made about Sidgwick.  I once remarked to him that I thought his work was ultimately more about reasons, and mine more about persons, in the full biographical sense.  But really, he was the one who, with J. B. Schneewind, gave me the confidence and courage to pursue my Sidgwick studies, which in turn led to this book.  I am glad to have this opportunity to explain just how much I owe to both of them.

Bart Schultz is senior lecturer in the humanities and director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians.

Dominic Couzens: The extraordinary (and overlooked) water shrew

water shrewAsk most people whether they have heard of a water shrew and they’ll shake their head. If you tell them that there are 1.9 million water shrews in Britain and that they have a poisonous bite, then those same people are likely to raise their eyebrows, amazed they have never heard of it. The water shrew (not a water vole or a “water rat”) manages to keep a remarkably low profile for the extraordinary creature that it is.

Shrews are the mammals that look superficially like mice—they are small, brown and furry—yet are quite unrelated to them. They are flatter-bodied than mice and don’t hop, and have long snouts that move around in a somewhat robotic, mechanical fashion as they seek food. With small eyes (they are related to the almost-blind moles) and small ears, shrews lack the features that give mice and voles an easy identity to humankind. Shrews don’t live indoors or steal our food, either; they subsist on a diet of insects and other small living things. So shrews aren’t exactly on our doorsteps, asking to be noticed.

But shrews cross our paths alright, even if we aren’t looking. They are among the most abundant of all our mammals. Aside from the water shrew, there are 42 million common shrews and 8.6 million pygmy shrews in Britain; a veritable army of voracious insect- and worm-guzzlers living at our feet. They prefer to live in long grass, dense shrubbery, and other places where it’s easy to hide.

And, of course, they choose the waterside, too. The water shrew, the largest and best-turned out of our three common species, with its smart white underside contrasting with business-suit-black above, is the most aquatic of the three. Although it is perfectly at home in undergrowth away from water, its signature hunting method is to immerse in still or slow-flowing water, diving down to depths of 2m or more for up to 30 seconds, to snap up crustaceans, insect larvae, snails, worms, and small vertebrates such as newts, frogs, and fish. It is the only British mammal adapted to tap into this underwater niche of small freshwater life.

As it happens, the water shrew can also tackle prey larger than itself, by means of its remarkable venomous saliva, which immobilizes frogs or fish. The venom is a neurotoxin, causing paralysis and disorders of the blood and respiratory system. It is toxic enough to be a very unpleasant skin irritatant in humans that may take days to subside.

The water shrew has several adaptations to its preferred aquatic lifestyle. The surface of each foot is fringed with stiff hairs, increasing the area of the limb, like a flipper, allowing this mite to swim efficiently. The tail also has stiff hairs on the underside, making it act like a rudder, for steering. The hairs on the body also trap a layer of air, keeping the shrew warm underwater, even in the middle of winter.

Shrews, although small, don’t hibernate. Instead they must remain active throughout the winter, requiring a meal at least every two hours, day and night. It isn’t easy to sustain, and many shrews don’t survive. In fact, almost every adult dies after a single breeding season, meaning that only the juveniles born during the spring and summer survive to the next season—just another extraordinary aspect of this overlooked animal’s life.

Dominic Couzens is one of Britain’s best-known wildlife writers. His work appears in numerous magazines, including BBC Wildlife and BBC Countryfile, and his books include Secret Lives of Garden Wildlife and Britain’s Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland.

Peter Ungar on Evolution’s Bite

UngarWe carry in our mouths the legacy of our evolution. Our teeth are like living fossils that can be studied and compared to those of our ancestors to teach us how we became human. In Evolution’s Bite, noted paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar brings together for the first time cutting-edge advances in understanding human evolution and climate change with new approaches to uncovering dietary clues from fossil teeth to present a remarkable investigation into the ways that teeth—their shape, chemistry, and wear—reveal how we came to be. Ungar recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Why do paleontologists care so much about teeth? What makes them so special?

PSU: Paleontologists care about teeth because oftentimes, that’s all we’ve got of extinct species to work out details of life in the past. Teeth are essentially ‘ready-made fossils,’ about 96% mineral, so they survive the ages much better than other parts of the body. They are special because they come into direct contact with food, and can provide a bridge to understanding diet in the past. We can tease out the details by studying their size, shape, structure, wear, and chemistry. Teeth connect us to our ancestors, and them to their worlds. I like to think of nature as a giant buffet of sorts. I imagine animals bellying up to the sneeze guard on this biospheric buffet with empty plate in hand. Teeth can teach us about the choices they make; and it’s those choices that help define a species’ place in nature. As the old adage goes, you are what you eat. Teeth are important because they can help us understand relationships between animals in the past and the worlds around them, and about their—and our—evolution.

Why do we have so many problems with our teeth today? Why do we get cavities, require braces, and have impacted wisdom teeth?

PSU: Think about how extraordinary your teeth are. They have to break food, without being broken themselves, up to millions of times over your lifetime. And they have to do it built from the very same raw materials as the foods you are eating. Nature is truly an inspired engineer, and it’s remarkable they last as long and function as well as they do. But they’re not perfect. Most of us today get cavities, and many of us have crooked front teeth, and impacted wisdom teeth. This is largely because of our diets. We eat mostly soft foods, loaded with highly-processed carbohydrates, especially refined sugars. Cavities form by erosion from acids produced by plaque bacteria. Feeding those bacteria diets high in carbohydrates, especially sugars, means more cavities. Also, when we eat soft foods as children, we don’t exercise our jaws enough to stimulate the growth they need to make room for all our teeth. The result is crowded lower incisors, uppers that jut out over the lowers in the front of the mouth, and impacted third molars in the back. It’s not that our teeth are too big for our jaws, it’s that our jaws don’t grow long enough to accommodate all our teeth. Most traditional foragers that eat tougher or harder foods have longer jaws, and so don’t suffer the sorts of orthodontic problems the rest of us have.

Do other species have these problems? If not, why are we so different?

PSU: I’ve seen cavities and evidence for gum disease in some non-human primates, particularly in species that eat a lot of fleshy, sugary fruit, but they’re much rarer than in us. There are very few early human fossils that provide evidence of dental disease in our distant past either. Again, it seems to be a mismatch between our diets today, and the foods that we evolved to eat. Our teeth are not designed for hamburgers and French fries, nor to be bathed in milkshake. If you want to see evidence of that mismatch, just smile and look in a mirror.

What was your motivation for writing a popular science book?

PSU: My PhD dissertation was 654 pages, mostly focused on a quarter of a square millimeter of the surface of some incisor teeth. Most academics are so narrow in their research focus that it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. I wrote this book to give myself the big picture, to give me an appreciation of the larger context into which my own work fits. Also, no more than half a dozen people actually read my dissertation cover to cover, and that includes my mother. Academics often feel like they’re speaking, but no one is listening. I wanted to reach a larger audience. This book at first glance seems to be about teeth – but it’s really about the biospheric buffet, and how environmental change over deep time swapped out items and choices available to our distant ancestors. The take-home message is that large-scale climate swings winnowed out the pickier eaters among us, and drove our evolution. Teeth are our window through which to see it. The most important message here is that climate changes, and species have to change to accommodate or die. That’s why we’re here. It’s a timely, important lesson.

As a scientist who has spent the last three decades studying evidence for the evolution of human diet, what do you think of today’s “Paleolithic diet” trend? And what was the ancestral human diet, anyway?

PSU: I’m not a fan. I like pizza and bagels too much. Still, there’s little doubt that our ancestors did not eat such things; so it makes sense that a discordance between the foods we evolved to consume and what we fuel ourselves with today can wreak havoc on our bodies. Try putting diesel in a car built to run on regular gasoline (actually, don’t). And people do lose weight when they cut refined carbohydrates and processed sugars from their diets. We could well benefit from eating more like our Stone Age ancestors, with menus like those in some popular diet books—you know, spinach salads with avocado, walnuts, diced turkey and the like. I am not a nutritionist, and cannot speak with authority about the nutritional costs of benefits of Paleolithic diets—but I can address their evolutionary underpinnings. Think about it this way. Any diet that drains the body of fat reserves means not meeting daily caloric needs. It is difficult to believe that nature would select for us to eat only foods that don’t provide the nutrients required to maintain the body. In fact, the whole idea of the Paleolithic diet is problematic. Even if we could (and we can’t) reconstruct the glycemic load, fatty acid, macro- and micronutrient composition, acid/base balance, sodium/potassium ratio, and fiber content of foods eaten at a moment in time in the past, the information would be meaningless for planning a menu. All these nutrients varied with food availability over space and time, as items on the biospheric buffet table were swapped in and out, so focusing on a single point in our evolution is futile. We’ve been a work in progress for millions of years. What was the ancestral human diet? The question itself makes no sense.

Peter S. Ungar is Distinguished Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics Program at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of Teeth: A Very Short IntroductionMammal Teeth: Origin, Evolution, and Diversity and Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins.

Masters of Craft: A trip to the barbershop

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about barbering. 

OcejoOne Monday in the early afternoon a young Asian man in his late 20s sits in Miles’s chair at Freemans Sporting Club, an upscale men’s barbershop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After greeting him, Miles asks what he would like to do. The man takes out his phone and shows Miles a picture of a model he saw online.

“Well, I can’t exactly do that for you, at least not now. You’ve got that coming down [points to longer hair on the side of his head] that I’d have to gradually get rid of. It’d look good in a couple of haircuts. Is that what you want?”

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

Miles turns to get his tools in order and then starts cutting his client’s hair. He makes basic chitchat to set him at ease: Has he ever been here before? (No.) What does he do? (Lawyer.) Where does he live? (Upper East Side.) After about ten minutes, Miles gets to the side of his head. Perhaps feeling more comfortable, the client talks about his hair.

“I’ve always had problems with that side of my head.”

“Yeah, a lot of guys do,” says Miles. “It’s where your whorl is. Do you know what that is?”

“No.”

“It’s this circle on the top of everyone’s head. Yours is there. It’s kind of like where hair starts [on the head]. Most guys who have cowlicks have them because either their hair is too short or it’s going in the other direction [from the whorl].”

“Oh.”

“So that could be why you’re having problems with it. Or it could be how your mom parted it for you when you were a kid, or sometimes you’re left-handed and trying to part on the other side.”

Of the four workplaces I studied, the upscale men’s barbershops are the most obvious places where we can see men performing masculinity. The barbers perform a “caring masculinity” for their clients, while clients go to these high-end shops to seek out a particular look or style to perform their own form of masculinity. Here, Miles is engaged in a “masculinity project.” He’s actively helping his client realize what kind of style would work for him, while simultaneously teaching him about why men usually get cowlicks and giving him an excuse for why he’s always had problems with his part (his mom may be responsible, or his handedness). But Miles is not just passing on knowledge of how to “do masculinity;” he is also working in a masculine-coded job that has been redefined today for a new generation of worker in service and manual labor, which is what he has in common with the people in the other jobs I studied.

Among the most vaunted jobs in today’s economy are those that require knowledge work in some form. These are jobs in high technology industries (IT, nanotechnology, biomedical research), high-end services like finance and design, and creative/cultural industries that require a large amount of human capital. Meanwhile, recent reports show that women-dominated jobs (health aides, counselors) are among the fastest-growing in today’s economy, while men-dominated jobs (manufacturing) are among the fastest-shrinking. Additionally, women have been shown to be more likely to enter male-dominated occupations, such as medical positions, than men are to enter women-dominated occupations, such as those that require caregiving and interpersonal service. In short, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for men to earn a living and achieve respect by using forms of traditional masculinity, specifically their bodies, and more pressure on them to acquire advanced degrees and/or work jobs that require them to interact with and even show empathy toward consumers.

But the jobs I studied represent alternatives to the strictly knowledge- or service-based jobs of today’s economy, and they offer their workers, who are mostly men, greater social benefits than the more common versions of these occupations. They are interesting hybrids: they allow men to use both their minds, as in the sense of style and knowledge Miles provides for his client, and their bodies, as in the technical haircutting skills Miles uses to achieve this style. Similarly, cocktail bartenders use their knowledge of mixology and skills in making cocktails, while whole-animal butchers use their knowledge of meat and artisanal butchery skills. They all must provide interpersonal service, but their interactions almost always circle back to the cultural knowledge. And they all perform their jobs for an audience of consumers in search of unique products, services, and experiences from cultural experts. These consumers validate the performances of these workers by listening to their knowledgeable advice on taste and style, and expressing their gratitude for what they’re receiving from them. Meanwhile, even though they do not regularly interact with consumers, since they aren’t part of the service industry, the craft distillers I studied also use their mind and bodies to manufacture special spirits products. Comments about what they make, directly from consumers and in the media, always refer to their products’ originality and the craftsmanship that went into them. In short, men in these jobs are able to claim a fading sense of middle class masculinity through work by performing physical labor, at the same time as they can achieve a greater amount of status by working jobs that require them to understand and communicate sets of cultural knowledge that have high cultural value in today’s city.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.