This Month In Books

Capsule reviews of new political nonfiction…

Whenever a book is released, the public has only one question. Not “Is it any good?” but “What does Respectable Opinion have to say about it?” As one of the country’s foremost manufacturers of Respectable Opinion, Current Affairs is here to ensure that the aforesaid question does not go unanswered.

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Liza Featherstone (ed.), “False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Verso, $14.95

Are we biased toward liking this book merely because it contains contributions from three Current Affairs writers? Of course we are. But that is only because a book containing contributions from Current Affairs writers is certain to be excellent. In assembling False Choices, Liza Featherstone has collected work from some of the most exciting and talented feminist writers in the country. This book is smart, fun, and iconoclastic. (Chapter One, by Kathleen Geier, is titled “Hillary Clinton, Economic Populist: Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”) It devastatingly punctures the liberal myth that Hillary Clinton is a reliable fighter on behalf of women; certainly that’s not true for the women of Honduras, or those in America’s prisons. False Choices should finally (but won’t) kill the nasty myth spread by Twitter-dwelling Clintonites that strong critiques of Hillary emanate from a cabal of misogynistic “Bernie Bros.” The book’s contributors approach Hillary’s record from a number of different angles, but always with wit and verve. But the best thing about False Choices has nothing to do with its subject matter. The book is refreshing because it shows that thoughtful, independent left-wing feminist criticism is alive and well. The writers in False Choices are not jargon-laden in their prose or dogmatic in their politics; they are fundamentally concerned with writing well. False Choices proves that feminist political analysis need not be predictable or stodgy; it can be fun, vicious, and vibrant. The women whose essays comprise False Choices are worth reading on any subject. If only there was a magazine in which one could regularly find their work.

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Patrick Cockburn, “Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East,” OR Books, $28.00

Patrick Cockburn is strangely neglected by the American media, even though is doing some of the most intelligent analysis of the Middle East. This book is adapted from his diaries and articles of the past 10-plus years, recounting the breakdown of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. It’s a very good guide to the players and their motivations, though it can all get somewhat exhausting, and Cockburn’s documentation of the endless absurdity and futility of it all will no doubt depress.

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Jonathan Tepperman, “The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World In Decline,” Penguin, $28.00

We were badgered by a publicist into reviewing this book. When Current Affairs asked Penguin Publishing  for a complimentary review copy of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, the publisher was happy to oblige. However, the Penguins imposed a condition: they asked if in addition to Desmond’s award-winning and harrowing account of residential instability among America’s urban poor, we would also be willing to receive a copy of Jonathan Tepperman’s The Fix (of which we had never heard). Because the motto of the Current Affairs book review desk has always been “We’ll review anything!” we dutifully assented, and now we have a copy of this Tepperman thing cluttering the office. Anyway, we haven’t read it. We meant to read it, or at least speak to someone who had. But time was short, and the back cover bored us. It looks, from our limited flick-through, like Tepperman is some kind of second-rate Thomas Friedman, and the book is one of those Big Thoughts surveys of the new global economic paradigm. He should probably do a TED talk, if he hasn’t already. Tepperman has a bulleted list of how to fix our global problems; as always, beware those who come bearing bulleted lists. Of course, maybe it’s not as bad as we suspect. Reading a book is often a good way to find out what it says, although you can nearly always judge a book by its cover. Nevertheless, we resent being deluged with unsolicited pop economics tomes. Besides, the motto is “we’ll review anything,” not “we’ll read anything.

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Leigh Phillips, “Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts,” Zero Books, $27.95

Leigh Phillips is a socialist, but one infuriated by the tendency of his fellow lefties to fall for ludicrous hippie woo-woo when it comes to industry and the environment. He smartly and brutally takes down a few doomsayer icons of the green left like Derrick Jensen; Phillips believes in harnessing capitalism’s productive powers rather then needlessly jettisoning them. He’s overly fond of  industrial monstrosities, but Phillips comes across a charming chap, well-read and good fun to spend time around.

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Roger Stone and Robert Morrow, “The Clintons’ War on Women,” Skyhorse Publishing, $27.95

There is an excellent book to be written about the Clintons from a feminist perspective. Unfortunately, we have this book, a collection of bizarre conspiratorial innuendos. Did you know Bill Clinton isn’t Chelsea Clinton’s father? That Bill Clinton’s own father isn’t his biological father? That everybody’s father is somebody else’s? Some good stuff in here about the way the Clintons discredited Bill’s rape and sexual assault accusers, but it’s sandwiched between too much sleaze about Vince Foster to be of any use.

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Bryan Magee, “Ultimate Questions,” Princeton University Press, $16.95

There are two kinds of books in this world; those that remind readers that they are a skeleton under their skin, and those that do not. Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions is in the former category. Magee insists on relating of all the terrifying truths about our mortality and our absurd condition; we do not know what we are or what we are doing here, we are unable to understand the world and everything in it is bizarre and curious, albeit fascinating. This book is not for those who dislike thinking of themselves as being confused, purposeless animals.

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Charles Glass, “Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring,” Verso, $16.95

Charles Glass is very good at his job, if only because he thinks reporting on Syria should involve… talking to Syrians. The best parts of this book are his recounting of the effects of the present conflict upon the lives of ordinary people. This is an informative, succinct, and straightforward overview of the present state of Syria, featuring illuminating detours into the country’s history. Glass is the sort of fellow who helps us make sense of things.

The Good Billionaires

In their efforts to court the rich, Democrats demonstrate new levels of hypocrisy.

Last week at the DNC, financial software magnate and ex-politician Michael Bloomberg enthusiastically endorsed Hillary Clinton, and denounced Donald Trump. Bloomberg said that he, unlike Trump, had “built a business” without “a million dollar check from my father.” On Saturday, billionaire Shark Tank host and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban introduced Hillary at an event in Pittsburgh, calling Trump “batshit crazy” and a “jagoff.” (Cuban has previously spent his time on Twitter mocking Trump for not having as much money as he says he does.) And on Monday, Warren Buffett, the world’s third-wealthiest man, became the latest billionaire to stump for Hillary. Buffett introduced Clinton at campaign event in Omaha, where he offered to disclose his tax returns if Donald Trump would do the same.

The Clinton campaign has proudly shown off the endorsements of Bloomberg, Cuban, and Buffett. The theory, evidently, is that those wealthier than Trump are in an excellent position to put him in his place. Each of the three men has heavily criticized Trump’s dismal record as a businessman. But it remains to be seen whether offering up a parade of billionaires is a good way of neutralizing a populist candidate. And to the extent that Clinton’s message seems to be “I am adored by the super-wealthy,” she may not be doing much to rope in disaffected Sanders supporters.

There’s something slightly peculiar about the Democrats’ enthusiastic embrace of the über-wealthy. Mark Cuban, for example, plays a vicious executive on a reality show in which people compete for the favor of wealthy patrons. Does this sound familiar? With Cuban spitting out words like “jagoff” and “batshit,” the Clinton campaign makes it clear that it doesn’t object in principle to vulgar billionaires from reality television. Just certain vulgar billionaires from reality television.

Likewise with Michael Bloomberg. Not only is Bloomberg one of Trump’s social peers, but he also shares Trump’s record of crassly sexist commentary. In a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Bloomberg’s company by four women, Bloomberg allegedly told an employee to “Kill it!” when she informed him she was pregnant. Previously, upon hearing the employee was engaged, Bloomberg replied “What, is the guy dumb and blind? What the hell is he marrying you for?” and suggested the woman’s father must have paid her fiancé to marry her. Bloomberg also admitted saying “I’d do her” in regard to an employee, and when asked about an allegation that he’d said “I’d do that piece of meat,” replied that he “didn’t recall” using the specific term “meat.” (Note: not “I would never say such a thing” but “I don’t recall saying such a thing.” As any lawyer can tell you, “I don’t recall doing that” can generally be translated as “I definitely did do that.”) Bloomberg settled the suit for an undisclosed sum.

Other Bloomberg remarks on women were similarly crass, including cracks about “fat broads” and a certain “horse-faced lesbian.” A book of Bloomberg’s “wit” compiled by employees included such sparkling, borderline Wildean maxims as: If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s” and “I know for a fact that any self-respecting woman who walks past a construction site and doesn’t get a whistle will turn around and walk past again and again until she does get one.” Bloomberg’s disparagement of women’s intelligence extended into his public role as New York’s mayor. When a female judge found Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policing practices unconstitutional, Bloomberg told the public that “your safety and the safety of your kids is now in the hands of some woman who does not have the expertise to do it.” (Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policies are a scandal of their own. Bloomberg was caught on tape at Aspen suggesting that police should always be on the look out for “male minorities,” and his law enforcement policies resulted in massive unconstitutional harassment of young black men. When Bill deBlasio campaigned against the practice, Bloomberg said deBlasio’s platform was “class warfare and racist.”) None of this kept Bloomberg from being granted a coveted speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention. 

But what about Warren Buffett? The humble and grandfatherly Omaha sage is often treated as exemplary of the “good” kind of rich person. He guzzles Coca-Cola, lives in a modest ranch house, and has pledged to give his fortune away. Buffett’s lifestyle is so ordinary that his son professes (implausibly) that until he was in his mid-20’s, he had no real idea what his father even did for a living.

Buffett’s actual wealth, however, is built on some deeply questionable practices, as intensive investigations by journalists have uncovered. Reports by the Center for Public Integrity, in cooperation with BuzzFeed and the Seattle Times, carefully exposed racially discriminatory predatory lending practices by a major Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary. While Buffett’s public image is staunchly Democratic and decent, his corporation extracts poor people’s money in downright cruel ways.

The situation is as follows: Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns a major company called Clayton Homes, the largest manufacturer of mobile homes in America, which operates through a network of over 1,600 dealerships. In fact, Clayton Homes “builds nearly half the new manufactured homes sold in this country every year, making it the most prolific U.S. home builder of any type.” Clayton Homes is also in the home financing business (through a subsidiary called Vanderbilt Mortgage), and “finances more mobile-home loans than any other lender by a factor of more than seven.”

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But when the Center for Public Integrity spoke with borrowers, it found that they were misled in often shocking ways, concluding that the company “relies on predatory sales practices, exorbitant fees, and interest rates that can exceed 15 percent, trapping many buyers in loans they can’t afford and in homes that are almost impossible to sell or refinance.” Numerous buyers of Clayton mobile homes reported that they were tricked into accepting mortgages from Clayton’s Vanderbilt financing subsidiary. In “three dozen interviews, Clayton’s minority customers said they were led to believe that Vanderbilt was the only option to finance their homes.” Clayton was also caught on tape lying to impoverished Navajos, telling them they could only finance their purchase through Vanderbilt, even though their tribe offered its own low-interest home loans. 

Many customers were shocked when they found out their interest payments were much higher than they had been led to believe. “I’m so stupid,” said one customer. “I thought I could understand it myself, and trust them, because they were so nice. But that all changed the second I signed that paper.” But part of this confusion was deliberate. Buffett’s company took advantage of customers with limited English ability; their “practice was not to provide Spanish-speaking customers with translated loan documents or interpreters at closing — even after employees at headquarters complained that too many customers were being misled about loan terms.” Yet when one Clayton representative was confronted about their methods, he replied: “It doesn’t really matter as long as we get the money.”

And they do make sure to get the money. When the mobile home residents fall behind in their payments, as they so often do, Buffett’s company’s debt collection methods border on the thuggish. Customers tell of employees “making groundless threats, calling relatives or employers to apply pressure, or berating borrowers until they either cried or figured out how to get some money.” Employees are pressured “to be ‘mean’ or ‘condescending,’ for example telling customers behind in their payments to cut back on groceries or forgo medical care.” (Although evidently “[c]ollectors typically were less abusive to white borrowers.”) When one debtor couldn’t meet her payments, and asked the company what to do, Buffett’s representatives recommended she sell her plasma.

The investigation also found that minorities were being charged far higher rates on loans than white customers. The company “typically charges black people who make over $75,000 a year slightly more than white people who make only $35,000.” It’s not unusual for racial minorities to be given higher interest rates, due to underlying financial disparities (black families are far less wealthy than white families), but the racial differences found in Buffett’s company were the “largest among big mobile-home lenders.” And the actions by Buffett’s company are of national consequence for African Americans, since its “grip on the lending market verges on monopolistic,” and in one year it “made 72% of the loans to black people who financed mobile homes.” (Buffett’s company’s practices are somewhat ironic, given that Democrats have condemned Donald Trump for his discrimination against minorities in the real estate market.)

For black Clayton employees, the racism was even more blatant. Through interviews and case records, BuzzFeed and the CPI uncovered a situation of “open racial hostility” in company offices. Multiple black employees were surprised to find themselves accused of stealing furniture. Managers referred to an African American worker as “Sambo” and “Buckwheat.” (They said they were “having fun.”)

The racism also extended toward the company’s internal view of its customers. When black prospective customers toured the homes on the sales lot, a Clayton employee referred to the lot as “niggerville,” adding for emphasis that “I can’t help myself, I hate niggers.” White agents for the company “openly ridiculed black borrowers, mimicking stereotypical black vernacular on the phone, then referring to them as ‘niggers’ after hanging up.” Native American customers experienced similar discrimination. One recalled that “Vanderbilt collection agents told her that Navajo people are ‘too stupid’ to understand loan terms” while another remembered a “collector asking whether his family had spent all of their money on alcohol.” Through dozens of interviews with employees of Buffett’s company, the CPI and BuzzFeed uncovered “a corporate culture that has condoned racism, including black employees fired while white workers used discriminatory slurs and kept their jobs, and phone collectors casually insulting borrowers with racist stereotypes.”

Warren Buffett’s own responses to the investigations have not been reassuring. Buffett dismissed the Center for Public Integrity investigation as mere “activism.” “I make no apologies whatsoever for Clayton’s lending practices,” he has said. “In the past three years, I have received not one call from any party in connection with a Clayton Home.” Buffett seems to operate on the premise that if his borrowers were dissatisfied, they would have called him on his personal line. Berkshire Hathaway did release a statement in response to the Center for Public Integrity investigation. But the company only refuted certain selected facts, and fudged others, leaving the bulk of the substantive allegations intact.

The practices by Clayton Homes and Vanderbilt have caused serious harm to large numbers of people. The CPI/BuzzFeed investigation reports that Buffett’s companies “have damaged minority communities — from rural black enclaves in the Louisiana Delta, across Spanish-speaking swaths of Texas, to Native American reservations in the Southwest. Many customers end up losing their homes, thousands of dollars in down payments, or even land they’d owned outright.” In this way, Clayton and Vanderbilt, “extract billions from poor customers around the country — particularly people of color, who make up a substantial and growing portion of its business.” (This is not the only way in which Buffett’s Clayton Homes has damaged the lives of people of color. In the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Buffett’s company supplied relief shelters that were unsafe and laced with formaldehyde, which soon began making children sick. The trailers were supplied as part of an arrangement made between Buffett’s company and the Clinton Foundation, which was overseeing the earthquake recovery.)

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Let’s be clear, then, about how Buffett makes a portion of his fortune: as one of the country’s largest slumlords. Buffett is in charge of an openly racist company that squeezes money from destitute mobile-home dwellers, with employees instructed to make borrowers cry so that they will find ways to make their payments. Buffett’s company literally enriches itself from the sale of poor people’s blood. That sounds ludicrous in its cruelty, even Dickensian. But one need only listen to the phone recordings obtained by BuzzFeed, in which Buffett’s company explicitly recommends that a black woman sell her plasma in order to pay them. Disguise it beneath whatever finance industry euphemism you please, but this is how Buffett’s money is made.

It has been puzzling watching the Democrats’ emerging general election strategy. Instead of attempting to articulate a compelling social agenda, which would deal with the debt, alcoholism, and suicide that afflict working-class Republican voters, the Clinton campaign has evidently decided to position itself as the choice of sensible elites. Instead of trying to find ways to deal with people’s woes and fears, Clinton has deployed Mark Cuban to laugh at Trump’s finances, and Warren Buffett to bring up the issue that voters care about most: wealthy men’s tax returns.

But that’s in keeping with the present-day Democratic philosophy on wealth, which is essentially harmonious with the Wall Street worldview. The Democratic party is in no sense hostile to the rich. It believes that so long as one is culturally progressive, there is nothing objectionable about the possession of a material fortune. (By the way, there is something wrong with being wealthy. Money is power, and so to have more money than other people is to have power over them. And the possession of great wealth in a time of great suffering is impossible to justify.)

Yet the super-rich turn out, on the whole, not to be good people. Just as wanting to become president is an impulse so perverse that it should instantly disqualify a person from holding the office, the fact that a person has quested after mountains of dollars should instantly cast serious doubt on their moral character. Some billionaires are personally unpleasant, like Bloomberg, who maintains a civil deportment for the cameras and then makes crass remarks about women’s rear ends in private. Others are like Buffett, superficially polite but dependent on human misfortune as a source of their wealth. Buffett seems kindly enough in person, but he has built a sprawling apparatus designed entirely to siphon money from mobile-home dwellers so it can be placed into Warren Buffett’s bulging bank account.

The Democrats’ embrace of amoral billionaires makes it highly unlikely that the party will follow through on any meaningful attempt to reduce American economic inequality. Instead of incorporating the Sanders constituency, and its critique of excessive wealth concentration, the Clinton campaign has enlisted plutocrats as campaign surrogates, to gloat about their superior business skills and wave around their tax returns. And so, far from presenting a meaningful opposition to Trumpism, Clinton touts the endorsements of her own set of slumlords, sexists, and reality show vulgarians. But since Clinton’s political party no longer seems to have any consistent principle except hatred of Clinton’s opponent, they cannot even be accused of true hypocrisy. A hypocrite must at least profess a certain set of moral standards. In today’s Democratic Party, predatory lenders and workplace harassers are welcome, so long as they share the goal of making Hillary Clinton the President of the United States of America.

The Miseries of Eviction: An Interview With Matthew Desmond

Current Affairs speaks to the Harvard sociologist about his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard, has written a critically-acclaimed study of the role evictions play in the lives of America’s poor. In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Desmond argues that the lack of access to affordable housing has become one of the most important, and unrecognized, social crises in the country. For his research, which involved years of ethnographic fieldwork in inner-city Milwaukee, Desmond was awarded a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship. Desmond recently spoke to Current Affairs legal editor Oren Nimni about his work.

ON: What was the goal of doing the research?

MD: For me, the first goal was just understanding. I’ve always been perplexed and troubled by how much poverty there is in America, the richest country with the most poverty, and I’ve always found that totally unnecessary. I wanted to understand the role housing plays in that story. If you read poverty literature, you read a lot about jobs and joblessness in families in all sorts of forms and mass incarceration. There’s just not a lot on housing. But we’re at this point where the majority of poor folks live in private apartments and get no assistance. They spend most of their money on housing, it’s a completely vital and imposing thing in their lives, and we just didn’t know much about it. When I started I had no idea how prevalent eviction was, I had no idea how consequential it would be. I thought eviction would be like a good window into [poverty], a good narrative device to hold the story together. I didn’t have any idea that it would be the central problem that emerged from the research.

ON: One possible risk I saw was that, over the past 10-15 years in particular, there have been a lot of books that pitch themselves as saying “this is actually the thing that explains poverty.” “It’s actually mass incarceration,” “it’s actually jobs,” etc. There’s a lot of value in saying that these are elements of poverty, the way it manifests, but if you say “no, this is actually the root cause,” and we address housing but don’t address other aspects of poverty, we will just continue to poke at the problem while the underlying conditions continue to reify.

MD: I so wish that was our problem. I so wish our problem was that we’re focusing too much policy on housing. I would love that problem. I think the problem we have is that only 1 of 4 American families that qualify for housing assistance get it. The vast majority of poor folks get nothing, from any level of government. If you ask the typical American, maybe not your readership, but the typical American “where do poor folks live”? They would say public housing, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. And so we have to have a huge investment that’s on the scale of the problem, we can’t settle for smaller change anymore when it comes to this issue of the affordable housing crisis.

Poverty is never just poverty, and this search for a silver bullet doesn’t confront the complexity of the problem and I hope the book does. You see the problem of joblessness, the problem of trauma, and we have to confront all of these things. I think you’re right, but also that housing has to be at the table and for a long time it just hasn’t been. And so any comprehensive poverty legislation has to have a housing component. I wouldn’t argue that that would a panacea. But also, we are existing in a world where the waiting list for public housing in our nation’s capital is like 20 years long. That’s out world. I would love it if we had inherited a world where housing assistance, etc., were addressed and we had dealt with that problem.

ON: One thing the book makes clear is that while it is partially about these grander systems of economics and housing availability, it’s also about actual people that make decisions every day in those systems. I’m thinking of the main landlord in the book, who makes decisions every day about whether to give leniency on rent or evict a tenant. There’s a place that you cite as the one time you intervened and convinced her to not call the Sheriff, which actually changed someone’s life, however marginally. How do we get at that, the fact that it’s not all systemic, that there are individual people making often devastatingly cruel choices?

MD: Or super generous choices. Part of me just doesn’t want something as fundamental as housing to come down to the whims of an individual, and I think that if you are a stable renter, it doesn’t. And there are legal protections and procedures for both landlords and tenants. But if you are someone like Arleen, renting at the bottom of the market and paying 80% of your income in rent, those laws literally cost money. And you exercise them at serious risk of eviction. So under those kinds of conditions, you really are at the risk of caprice either way; you could experience benevolence and magnanimity or callousness.

ON: It’s hard when we talk about discretion. Because a lot of times, for example in criminal defense, on one hand we’re pushing for judges to have less discretion, since discretion can result in racism. But when you have less discretion, all boats sink, and we end up with everyone just being harmed equally by policies like mandatory minimums. In the book you show this, too. In the trailer park, for example, when there’s more discretion, Tobin [the manager of the trailer park] is often kicking people out that need leniency, and it’s really based on his own personal whim, and in a really gendered way where men seemed to garner a lot more favor from him. But then when the new property management company came in, and had really strict evenly applied rules, that wasn’t necessarily a benefit to the residents either.

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MD: Well, people were terrified of that. There was real terror when the new property management firm was coming in and cleaned up. On paper, by all accounts they were more professional, they were fairer, there was a system. But that terrified the people of the park, because they thought that confronting that kind of bureaucracy or these kinds of rules would eviscerate this discretion that sometimes favored them. I hope it comes through in the book that Tobin bailed people out, paid for people’s funerals… and also evicted folks.

ON: A lot of times in the book you describe the difference between “stable poverty” and the tenuous poverty of a lot of tenants. What is the biggest core difference between the two experiences of poverty, other than the money?

MD: There are a ton of differences. Over the last 20 years, we’ve had a massive expansion of inequality, not just between rich and poor, but under the poverty line. There are stable folks, the working poor, and then this grinding poverty, often the non-working poor. The big difference is stability, as well as exposure to trauma. Another big difference is access to help… so there was this paper published a few years ago out of Johns Hopkins about per capita welfare spending over the last two decades and it showed that if you’re a working poor person, just in terms of per capita aid, you’re a lot better off than twenty years ago, if you’re a non-working poor person, it’s a lot worse. So just having access to things like the earned income tax credit, and public housing. Basically it’s an employment-based safety net, rather than welfare payments, which are almost dried up and haven’t increased since 1997, or SSI which is really just helping you scrape by. That’s the huge difference.

ON: One thing that was striking in the book is who landlords are. You see tenants that are living in pretty terrible conditions, clearly in violation of myriad housing codes, but at the same time its true that some (by no means all), of the landlords are actually lower middle class or stable poor. And they actually couldn’t afford to bring the house up to code without losing the property. What’s your feeling about these rules that are on one hand there for the benefit of tenants but on the other hand if they were all followed might actually deprive some people of housing, even as we try to make the housing better.

MD: I think the bigger problem is just that it’s hard to pay your rent if you’re a poor person. And under those conditions, rules and regulations, kind of tinkering with them, criticizing or praising them… there’s bigger game afoot. We’ve reached the point where most poor families are spending most of their income on housing, and 1 in 4 are spending over 70%. So addressing that point then allows us to address building blocks like code and things.

The history of housing codes can in one way be read as a history of unanticipated consequences. In another way, though, it is an enormous success story. If I wrote this book in the beginning of the 20th century, what would be different? Poor folks would be living in conditions a lot worse than they now are today. We’ve eviscerated slums from our communities. The book is totally clear on that; we have a long way to go, but we’ve made huge leaps forward on that score. But the other thing is this problem that’s facing folks, that they’re just at the mercy of landlords, and they’re just crushed by the high cost of housing. Until we fix that, it’s hard to regulate ourselves out of the problem.

ON: A lot of the people I represent are low wage workers, domestic workers particularly, and one thing that struck me when I started representing them was that, in my mind, a domestic worker-employer relationship looks like a low-wage immigrant worker working for a wealthy white family in the suburbs. But what I found was that many of my clients were low-wage immigrant workers, working for other low-wage immigrant workers. And those workers have to work two jobs and can’t take care of their kids themselves, so they hire a domestic worker, who they then underpay because of their own low wages. So they’re violating the law, minimum wage, overtime etc., but it’s also true that they actually can’t pay that wage because they’re getting screwed over by their bosses in turn… It brings up this thing where in a sense because of the way the employment relationship is set up, it’s poor people robbing the poor to feed the poor. Some of that appeared in the book as well; Tobin didn’t seem particularly well off. And a lot of the times the landlords actually weren’t big firms or property management companies but were regular people with a couple of dilapidated properties. Of course, by the end, the main landlord has expanded quite a bit and I think had like 34 or 35 properties. But they were also people who didn’t necessarily always have access to all the resources needed to keep the buildings up to code.

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MD: I think some would say that. Some would say the landlords in the book were undercapitalized so they have to resort to distractions. So, what’s acceptable? How much should a landlord that’s renting to a very poor person profit? So Sherena, the main landlord, took home about $10,000 [per month] after expenses, 36 units all squarely in the inner city. She rented almost exclusively to black families, she had a five bedroom home, Jacuzzi in the basement. She and her husband took vacations every year, they had two cars, and ate out every day. She took home in a month what her tenants took home in a year. So, there it is. And part of the profit model that she practiced was running some properties into the ground to be able to minimize expense and maximize profits. And there’s a ton of different landlord strategies. But there is a business model at the bottom of the market and there is a way of making money off of properties, not in spite of the neighborhood, but because of it…The big takeaway for me is like a lot of times when we write about poverty we write about it like it’s a sad accident and no one ever asks “Who’s profiting off this in a direct way? And what does that mean for how to fix poverty?” One thing that means is that if we don’t confront that bare fact, our public policies are going to fall very flat. And wealth will continue to be extracted and markets will just adapt.

ON: One thing I appreciated about the book was that the shine was off the apple as far as law was concerned. Legal remedies for both landlord and tenant were just viewed as pieces in a calculus rather than having some kind of mystical overriding force. I think a lot of people who haven’t experienced any poverty or housing difficulties would be baffled that you wouldn’t show up for an eviction court date. And there’s two elements to that, one point is that it’s just an economic calculus, should I pay all or part of rent, should I withhold but plan to move out and then not show to court, and then combined with that there’s a psychological element of I just don’t have the energy to deal with this.

MD: So when I first started this research and was going to eviction court with Sherena and seeing most of her tenants not show up…I mean, you’ve spent time in eviction court, housing court.

ON: Here it’s about 200 people every Thursday in a bureaucratic processing mill…

MD: It’s just so crowded and so much noise and so much is going on, it’s hard to even call in a court. It is, like you said, really just a processing plant. I remember giving a talk at a law school when I was starting this research and I got this question from a legal scholar, and I have been asked it a few times and then I realized, “oh, they’ve never been to an eviction court” like they have this image of what a court is and it’s not squaring with the image that I’m presenting. I’ve now gotten to go to a few housing courts and Milwaukee is not an outlier, I was in South Bronx housing court a few months ago and I learned that until just recently there had been a daycare inside because there were just so many children around. I think when I saw this high default rate a lot of tenants not showing, I tried to get a hold of that statistically, and there’s this little footnote in the book about this but we didn’t find anything, no connections, like if you owe more are you less likely to come, no, if you live further away no, so if the model is right then it means its random, so it’s like why did you show up, oh well you happened to find someone to watch your kids, or you had the day off of work, or you randomly just value that highly, or you think you have a case. So it’s really disheartening. And I think some commissioners, who are the ones who handle the cases in Milwaukee, some commissioners are known to be more pro or anti tenant and I don’t think it really matters, everyone’s just trying to get through the stack of cases and get to the end of the day. And there’s another stack tomorrow. So when we think of how to fix that, and when we think of suggestions of the right to civil counsel, it also means staffing the court so that it can function like a court.

ON: So in Boston Wednesdays are public housing eviction day and Thursdays are private housing eviction day and its very different to go into court on those days. The first client I ever had in Boston was a 93 year old woman getting evicted from subsidized housing. She was getting evicted for spilling juice on another tenant, which the landlord was charging as an assault. She defaulted on her first date, before I was representing her, just because it took her PCA [Personal Care Attendant] 2 hours to get her dressed every morning and the PCA didn’t get in till 8am so there was no way even without travel time (which was substantial) for her to make a 9 am court time. She had so many obstacles, but still came. I really didn’t expect her to ever. I think sometimes it’s a lot about mood, on that day, are you too depressed to deal with having to go to court, or do you think you can bear it?

MD: I think that comes through a few places in the story. Where one of the tenants in her first eviction, there were two things really, like one she didn’t think it was a big deal, and there was this moment where I was kind of trying to say “Aren’t you nervous? This is your first eviction, aren’t you nervous about it going on your record?” And her response was, “all my friends except my white friends have evictions on their record.” The racism was staggering and the whole thing is normalized. And the second thing is that I think she could have gone to court, she thought she would be embarrassed, though. She told a story about her mom going to court and the judge being rude and not winning anyway and …she has a bit of a point. I ask myself, if you had to go and face off with an attorney, would I go? And I have a PhD. And Patrice, a tenant in the book didn’t finish high school, would you want to go in there against a lawyer or a landlord that’s in there all the time and knows the system?

ON: In the book, although there’s a lot of hope and struggle, there’s also this pervasive hopelessness. Overwhelming hopelessness. Particularly when the movers are coming to kick people out and initially they’re in a frenzy and then just succumb to despair. A lot of the movers were even moving out people they knew. What is that like, that amount of human misery caused by other humans? What did you see from the tenants, in terms of how they dealt with that constant overwhelming force?

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MD: A good amount of dark humor. I think the movers try to do it as civilly as possible… if that’s even possible, by being polite and asking people things. But in the end they have a ton of houses to do by the end of the day. The amazing thing is just that you open your door, and the next minute your house is just not your house anymore, and they’re flipping on your lights and opening your cupboards and the invasiveness is astounding. And you’re moving people out in all circumstances; first eviction of the morning you’re waking them up, and the woman you mentioned was just cooking dinner and like she knew the day was coming but didn’t know exactly when it was going to be. And I remember she had this chalkboard on her wall with like a to-do list of the most pedestrian things like oil change for clock, homework, you know normal parts of home life. I think the psychology is really complicated about what that does to someone. You know we have this paper that links eviction to depression and it shows that evicted mothers, two years later experience high rates of depression and we control for rates of homelessness and other fallout of eviction, so one way of thinking about that relationship is to say that eviction itself, the physical act of removal leaves a mark, above and beyond the later fallout.

ON: Are there solutions short of full redistribution of property or wealth that will actually have an impact? Can any little tinkering really effect this? Or will the market just shift around whatever you try to do?

MD: There are little things, there are free things we can do that would matter. There are also things that involve an investment and this is a problem deserving of an investment. Among the free tinkering things… can we have a conversation about eviction records? Should they be public and free and put online for all to see? They have real effects on people’s ability to get housing. And I don’t have to tell you this, but most families that go to eviction court have no legal representation; there’s no check against a landlord’s claims for most cases. And the results of those cases just go up online for free, and they can stop you not just from getting safe housing, but also keep you from getting public housing. Can we have a conversation about that? It would be costless to limit those records. Or can we have a discussion about renter discrimination, about how landlords can just turn away folks with public housing vouchers just because they have vouchers? It’s a really immense barrier that stops people from moving into safer neighborhoods with better schools. I think we need to have a conversation about that. Then, moving from that end of the spectrum to the other, we do have to have to confront the fact that people just don’t have money. So, as you know, the book comes out in favor of a universal voucher idea. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, the program we have works pretty well, but we just expand it to everyone below the poverty line. That would have a huge, huge effect on poverty in America and would make evictions and homelessness rare. That’s a solution that’s equal to the scale of the problem, and one that’s within our capacity.

Our Spectacular Summer Book Giveaway!

Every print Current Affairs subscription comes with a free book of your choice!

For reasons too various to name, the Current Affairs offices tend to become littered with new and used books. Sometimes these are sent to us against our will, sometimes we purchase them and later regret it. And while we naturally enjoy being surrounded by ceiling-high towers of books, the stacks have lately become increasingly precarious. Should there be an avalanche, the consequences could be most unfortunate, especially for some of the more frangible interns.

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Thus, Current Affairs is pleased to announce our First Annual Summertime Book Promotional Giveaway! Effective immediately, all those who purchase a subscription to the magazine’s print edition will be sent a FREE book of their choice from the Current Affairs Book Registry. Note: to be eligible, one must have purchased a subscription after July 14th. 

It even gets somewhat better! Anyone who springs for a High-Income subscription will not only receive a book from the Registry, but will receive a brand-new first-edition copy of our new Current Affairs spin-off book, Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America. That copy will be signed by the author and personally inscribed with the amusing message of your choice.

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Here’s how the promotional works. Simply sign up for a subscription, look at the books list (located below), then email [email protected] with your choice. If you remember, please include a second choice in case your first has been claimed.

The Only Somewhat Convoluted Guide to Book Conditions:

* = used, excellent condition

** = used, perfectly decent condition

† = hardcover

(Thus if a book is followed by no symbols, it is a new paperback. “**” for a hardcover generally just means it is missing a dust jacket.)

  • Paul Avrich – The Russian Anarchists **†
  • Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote *†
  • Noam Chomsky – Language and Politics *†
  • Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman – Manufacturing Consent *
  • Charles Dickens – Bleak House **†
  • Andrea Dworkin – Letters from a War Zone **†
  • Terry Eagleton – Literary Theory **
  • Umberto Eco – How To Travel With A Salmon and Other Essays **†
  • Edward Fawcett – Hartmann the Anarchist
  • Stanley Fish – Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies *
  • Michel Foucault – Madness & Civilization *** (somewhat appalling condition though nevertheless readable)
  • Alice Goffman – On The Run: Fugitive Life in An American City
  • Hendrik Hertzberg – Politics: Observations and Arguments 1966-2004 *†
  • Wang Hui – China’s Twentieth Century
  • Lawrence Lessig – Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress *†
  • A.J. Liebling – The Most of A.J. Liebling *†
  • Edward Klein – Unlikeable: The Problem With Hillary
  • Andreas Malm – Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming
  • Oscar Martinez – A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America
  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – The Marx/Engels Reader **
  • Yates McKee – Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition
  • Rigoberta Menchu – I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala **
  • Ralph Nader – The Ralph Nader Reader *
  • Friedrich Nietzsche – The Viking Portable Nietzsche **
  • George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia **
  • Thomas Paine – Selected Writings **†
  • Leigh Phillips – Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts
  • Joao Quartim – Dictatorship and Armed Struggle in Brazil **†
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Confessions †*
  • Jean-Paul Sartre – Anti-Semite and Jew **†
  • Helene & Marshall Shapo – Law School Without Fear
  • Jeff Smith – Mr. Smith Goes To Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis *†
  • Roger Stone and Robert Morrow – The Clintons’ War on Women 
  • William Styron – The Confessions of Nat Turner **†
  • Leo Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan lllich *
  • William Julius Wilson – When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor **†
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
  • PG Wodehouse – Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit *
  • Cornel West – Prophecy Deliverance! An African-American Revolutionary Christianity **
  • James Q. Whitman – Harsh Justice: Criminal Justice and the Widening Divide Between America and Europe *
  • Tsering Woeser – Tibet on Fire
  • Naomi Wolf – Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How it Will Change the 21st Century **†
  • Robert Paul Wolff – In Defense of Anarchism **
  • Gordon S. Wood – The Radicalism of the American Revolution **†
  • George Woodcock & Ivan Avakumovic – Peter Kropotkin: From Prince to Rebel *†
  • Daniel Zamora and Michael C. Behrent – Foucault and Neoliberalism

A book’s presence on the list is neither an endorsement nor a disavowal of its substantive contents and theses.

Deporting Criminal Immigrants Is Both Unwise And Immoral

There’s a left-right consensus that immigrants who commit crimes should be deported. That consensus is a mistake.

“The killer was an illegal alien gangbanger from Mexico, released from jail with a deportation hold, three gun charges, and an assault and battery on a police officer… Only Trump mentions Americans killed by illegals.” So spoke Jamiel Shaw, Sr., the father of a black teenager murdered in Los Angeles in 2008, in a speech at the Republican National Convention last week. The facts of the case are harrowing: the 19-year-old killer, Pedro Espinoza, was a member of Los Angeles’s 18th Street Gang. The shooting was sudden and unprovoked, apparently prompted by the fact that Jamiel Shaw, Jr. had the misfortune to be wearing red, thereby resembling a member of the rival Bloods gang. Espinoza showed no remorse at trial. Smiling openly at his victim’s family members, he announced that he had no intention of paying any restitution money.

Most commentators would probably agree that Espinoza is exactly the kind of “criminal alien” who deserves to be deported. There is a broad left-right consensus that, no matter what one’s general opinion on immigration is, those who commit serious crimes ought to be expelled from the country. Though Espinoza had lived in the U.S. since he was an infant, he was born in Mexico and his presence in the United States was therefore a violation of the law.

As an unauthorized immigrant, Espinoza is far from typical, since immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. It may therefore be fair for Trump’s opponents to argue that deliberately highlighting his particular story mischaracterizes the makeup of the immigrant population.

But even as they pointed to the lower crime rates among immigrants, many liberals would likely concede that Espinoza should have been deported. The progressive approach to immigration, after all, is to focus on “Felons not Families.” Espinoza was a sociopathic felon and gang member who murdered people over the color of their handkerchiefs. If the task is to get rid of the “bad” immigrants, he probably ought to have been the first one booted from the country.

Yet while deporting Espinoza seems instinctually smart and fair, it’s worth thinking twice about. Espinoza was briefly detained on an assault charge before he was released back into the community, at which point he encountered and murdered Shaw. The pro-deportation argument goes that, when Espinoza was first arrested and discovered to be undocumented, he should have been immediately shipped off to Mexico. But knowing for a certainty, as we do now, that Espinoza was capable of murder, we should consider whom he might he have abused or murdered in Mexico, had he been sent there. As Current Affairs has previously argued, deporting someone because we believe they might commit a crime means wishing that crime upon some victim in another country. And if Espinoza had murdered someone in Mexico, there would have been far less recourse for his victim’s family there—a 2016 study estimates that only 7 out of 100 crimes are reported in Mexico, and that of the crimes that are reported, only 4.46% result in convictions. In other words, it’s highly likely that Espinoza would have had the opportunity to harm a lot more people, had he been so inclined. That doesn’t mitigate the suffering of Jamiel Shaw’s family. But it’s important to be aware that ejecting criminal offenders from our territory doesn’t actually reduce crime; it simply foists it onto people elsewhere.

The deportation of criminals is also bad foreign policy. Espinoza was born in Mexico, but despite recent rhetoric about dangerous influxes of “Mexicans,” immigration from Mexico is actually down these days. Most of the immigrants apprehended on the southern border are actually Central Americans, predominately from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Many of these individuals are quite literally fleeing for their lives: the murder rate in El Salvador is higher than in any country on earth that is not an active war zone.

The ever-increasing prevalence of transnational gangs, or maras, has been both a product and a driver of this violence. Young men in gang-controlled neighborhoods are effectively conscripted from the time they are children, and women and girls are routinely targeted for sexual violence. Businesses and households are made to pay “war taxes” to the gangs; rape, kidnapping, or murder of family members is a common tactic to coerce payment. People risk the dangerous overland journey across Mexico—a journey during which many travelers are robbed or even murdered, and approximately 80% of women and girls are raped—because they know they will incur few risks on their journey that they have not already faced on a daily basis in their own hometowns.

The Los Angeles street gang to which Pedro Espinoza belonged—the 18th Street Gang, known in Central America as “Mara 18” or “Barrio 18”—is one of the major transnational gangs that currently dominates the Northern Triangle. Their chief rival, MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, also has its origins in Los Angeles. The growth in those gangs has a lot to do with U.S. immigration and deportation policies. A number of Central American families, impoverished and traumatized by the horrors of civil war, fled to the U.S. in the 1980s and settled in Los Angeles, without immigration status. Their children were exposed to existing L.A. gang violence, and some of them joined gangs. Then, as young adults, these gang members were deported en masse to El Salvador and Honduras, countries many of them could barely remember: countries which were still fragile after decades of violence, undertaking the difficult work of political and economic reconstruction.

Banished from the U.S., the only home many of them had ever known, with few prospects for employment, these deportees predictably founded satellite branches of their Los Angeles gangs in their new Central American neighborhoods. Over ensuing decades, these gangs’ territorial battles spread across most urban areas, and have now penetrated outlying suburbs and rural counties as well. Today, there are a staggering 85,000 gang members active in the Northern Triangle. (To give some perspective, that’s nearly triple the estimated membership of ISIS.) Corruption within the police and in local government institutions is endemic, leading to a widespread culture of impunity. On the rare occasions when gang members are jailed for more than a token period of time, this has posed little obstacle to their operations: gangs exercise considerable internal control over prisons, and can direct subordinates and run telephonic extortion schemes from the inside. The chaos created by the gangs means that even crimes committed by non-gang members—rapes, murders, domestic violence, child abuse—are almost never prosecuted.

The fact is, when we deport criminals, vulnerable people in the receiving country suffer, often on a massive scale. Sending gang members to Central America means sending new recruits to Central American gangs. Those gangs then terrorize civilian populations. When that happens, the victims naturally run someplace where they think they will be safe—and often, that’s the United States. Deporting criminals doesn’t stop immigration. On the contrary, the mass deportation of criminal aliens to countries ill-equipped to deal with them generates a cycle of increasing numbers of refugees.

For some, that’s an excellent justification for sealing the border; let’s just deport all the criminals we currently have, then stop letting any new immigrants in. First, that’s unlikely to work.After all, the Border Patrol itself does not think the border is truly sealable, no matter how big and fancy a wall you build. More importantly, the moral implications of this strategy need to be fully appreciated. By attempting to seal ourselves off, and sending crime to other countries, we risk creating and then shutting our eyes to an unbelievable amount of suffering. Before anyone signs on to a Trumpian strategy, they should ask themselves whether they’re truly willing to condemn the men, women, and children in our neighboring countries to be brutally murdered by criminal organizations that are, in fact, our own country’s export.

So, if deportation isn’t the answer, what is? Is the United States supposed to become a warehouse for criminals that other countries don’t have the resources to incarcerate? Obviously that’s not a real solution. But we need to stop thinking about violence as a product of immigration, and start thinking about violence as an impetus for immigration.

To avoid deaths like that of Jamiel Shaw, it would be wise to examine domestic policies. The problem of kids joining gangs affects both immigrants and native-born Americans. Fixing it requires examining how social policies support or fail vulnerable children. Are mothers given the childcare support and paid leave they need to raise their kids well? Do parents have good jobs? Are schools providing children with adequate opportunities?

It’s also important to think about why people choose to leave Mexico and Central America, rather than simply trying to stop them from coming in (or casting them out once they’re here). If families were safe in their homes, if young men and women were growing up with satisfying employment, they wouldn’t have reason to attempt the perilous journey across the U.S. border. And we may have to ask ourselves a few highly discomforting questions. How, for example, are U.S. drug policies contributing to the success of Mexican drug cartels? And why did our State Department maintain a calculated neutrality in 2009, when a coup overthrew a democratically-elected government in Honduras?

Our approach to our neighbors is, at best, indifferent and disorganized; and at worst, opportunistically tailored to serve the short-term self-interest of a small elite. As always, thinking seriously about stopping crime means thinking about its causes. Those that truly care about deaths like that of Jamiel Shaw need to take into account the social factors that breed gang violence. One of those is U.S. deportations. Expelling criminal aliens may feel satisfying and just. But it doesn’t magically cause crime to disappear; it simply moves it around. And while U.S. citizens might not mind watching Central America collapse into violence, the consequences of that violence may well find their way back onto U.S. soil.