The Reassuring Lies of 9/11 Cinema

Movie depictions of September 11th tend to offer a comfort we don’t deserve.

Everyone has a story about what they were doing on September 11, 2001. Most of these stories are false. Sure, the fundamentals are correct; where we were, who we were with. But in the retellings, people always seem to have had more profundity and understanding than they actually did. Most people spent 9/11 open-mouthed and baffled, unsure of what to do, though they knew everything was horrible. But when people talk about it, they pretend they understood, that their feelings were deep, their questions wise. Younger people will tell you that they were in social studies, and that after the TV had been wheeled in, they asked the teacher some piercing question, like “Will more people die now?” Older people will tell you about some grave musing, possibly a nearby World War II veteran observing “This is going to be very bad.” or will talk about how some interoffice grudge evaporated instantaneously, the aggrieved parties tearfully hugging one another while people were being cooked alive in the World Trade Center. It’s not that none of these things happened. It’s that their significance is applied retroactively, and the feelings of chaos and shell shock we actually experienced on the day are supplanted by orderly and meaningful narratives.

Only a handful of films have been made about the attacks in the fifteen years since they happened. But the fog that afflicts our collective memories similarly affects the fictionalizations. Just as autobiographies consist of what authors choose to remember, representations of 9/11 display what we wish we had in place of our actual memories. Some precocious youngsters did probably say some profound things. But there were also plenty of people hunkered into their basements with assault rifles because they thought World War III was about to start immediately. And there were others who saw the attacks as an opportunity to commit hate crimes against Sikhs, on the logic that you can upend terror plots by assaulting every stranger in a turban. Not to mention our other post 9/11 indiscretion, when we gave the state free rein to roll back civil liberties while doing to Central Asia and the Middle East precisely what was done unto us in Manhattan (i.e. burning large numbers of people to a crisp).

We look at this behavior now as if recovering from a severe hangover. We speak like a guy apologizing for how he got drunk and did something either racist, horny, or both. That wasn’t the real us, we rationalize. The real us was not the still-raging civil war in Iraq, or the ongoing hate crimes against Muslim Americans. It was cute questions to our parents or the hug we gave to a detested coworker.

Our films are here to reassure us that we are right.

The first 9/11 blockbuster was United 93, a 2006 drama directed by Englishman and ex-journalist Paul Greengrass (now better known for his contributions to the Bourne franchise). Either despite or because of its proximity to the actual events of 9/11, United 93 stays impressively far away from saccharine emotionality or crazed bloodlust. It attempts a claustrophobic realism, mostly taking place in the cabin of the Boeing 757 as four terrorists attempt to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol Building.

The film features no major stars. Even Jeremy Glick (the passenger whose supposed midflight battle cry of “let’s roll!” became a slogan for pissed off suburban war dads who wanted to drop Agent Orange on Mecca) is played by the little-known Peter Hermann. The cast of experienced character actors brings competence and gravity to the film, an effect that could easily have been ruined by the addition of the expected maudlin scenery chewing from a top-tier leading man or woman. The creative risks Greengrass took with United 93 make it a nerve-racking, evocative experience. It uses steadicam to great effect in the tight, panic-inducing spaces of the plane and air traffic control booth. Cinematically, the film is superb, and deserves the acclaim it won from critics.

The film is obviously forced to take some liberties; it is, after all, difficult to reconstruct the precise goings-on of a flight with no survivors. Nevertheless, some story choices are blatant propaganda. A German passenger named Christian Adams (a real victim of the real Flight 93, played by Erich Redman) is portrayed as trying to appease the hijackers, a hyponym for the weak Euros who dared to second-guess us on Iraq. Adams is shown to be simpering and unrealistic in the face of pure evil, even though neither the filmmakers nor anyone else could possibly have known about the real man or events on board.

But in its general tone, the film accurately portrays how people act in situations of crisis. They don’t burst into spontaneous displays of unity. They don’t understand the geopolitical consequences of the horrors unfolding in front of them. They are alternately confused, terrified, and enraged. The air traffic controllers whom we follow for much of the film are apoplectic, constantly cursing how little they know and making wild guesses as to what could possibly be happening.

The next major movie that directly confronted 9/11 was in many ways United 93’s opposite, in that it has zero reluctance to engage in histrionics and melodrama. Mike Binder’s 2007 Reign Over Me is a confounding treatise on family life, mental illness, and of course, 9/11. Adam Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, a man whose entire family (including the dog) perished that Tuesday morning. Sandler portrays the grieving  Fineman as a kind of horror-stricken manchild who responds to reminders of his former family with explosive meltdowns. Putting Adam Sandler in a drama about terrorism and mental illness seems like sketch material to begin with. But even worse, the “angry manchild” persona is precisely the same as Sandler’s stock comedy character, and thus we are treated to a bizarre alternate world in which Billy Madison is a devastated 9/11 widower. (One keeps expecting Rob Schneider to show up playing some catchphrase-spewing ethnic stereotype.)

Whenever the film is not pursuing a bizarre subplot about friend Alan Johnson’s (Don Cheadle) sexless marriage, it delivers little but overwrought emotional manipulation, culminating in a final courtroom scene where Sandler in full Billy Madison voice saying things like “my famiwy died that daywuh.” After this, it is implied he overcomes his grief and has sex with an insane woman.

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Reign Over Me is the most cynical type of tragedy pornography. Yet people love it. To this day, YouTube uploads of the most saccharine scenes are filled with comments about how Sandler is a brilliant dramatic actor and how nuanced the film is. Adam Sandler hollering to Don Cheadle that “my fweakin famiwy died in dah towahs” can be described using many adjectives, but “nuanced” is not among them.

Yet Reign Over Me accurately displays the attitude we had right after 9/11. If United 93 is the horrified confusion in the moment of the attacks, Reign Over Me is what we chose to remember. It gives the illusion of profundity to the ridiculous and tragic. It is fake emotion, ascribing depth to every banal and confused word we said in the aftermath of an event that couldn’t and shouldn’t have been interpreted. 

Our most recent cinematic confrontation with 9/11, and the one most representative of our worst impulses, is Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s fictionalized account of the hunt for (and death of) Osama bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty, like most defense industry projects, is bloated, overfunded, and barely works. As a viewing experience it is an absolute slog. As a moral narrative it is appalling, an ode to torture, extraordinary renditions, and permanent war as an institution. It is repulsive in its message, and almost courageous in its boringness. It is impossible to invest in any of the characters, who are single minded, expressionless automatons. We first meet them as they torture some guy who apparently might know some piece of important information, and they spend the rest of their time switching between bloodlust and bureaucratic smugness.

I should take a moment to note that I am almost alone in this opinion. The film was a smash hit, received five Academy Award nominations, and appeared on everyone’s “top ten” lists for 2012. I saw the film with friends who had “national security” concentrations in college (“national security” being perhaps the most made-up academic discipline besides “economics”). They were thrilled with every interminable scene of people hissing military acronyms at each other in office buildings and doughy CIA contractors torturing people.

Zero Dark Thirty exonerates the dark part of our reaction to 9/11, the part where we told our government to do whatever they thought was right, regardless of how many people would die or have electrodes attached to their testicles.

Some of that enchantment is understandable—Kathryn Bigelow is in many ways brilliant in a technical sense, and her mastery of shadow and light means that most shots and scenes are beautifully done. But the popularity of Zero Dark Thirty is not a product of the viewing public’s discerning eye for chiaroscuro. It’s the message of Zero Dark Thirty that resonates. The film is a security blanket, a boost of confidence. Characters are sleek and stoic. They’re doers, not talkers. They’re always on the exact right path to catch the people who knocked down the towers.

It is, in other words, a testament to how good it was to put full faith into our political and national security elites right after 9/11. It reassures us that we made the right choice because we put the right people on the job. It tells us that torture is necessary, and that we finally chased all the phantoms out of our head after the final bullet perforated Osama bin Laden, as we see when our hero Maya (Jessica Chastain) bursts into tears at the very end.

Zero Dark Thirty therefore exonerates the dark part of our reaction to 9/11, the part where we were scared so shitless that we tacitly or overtly told our government to do whatever they thought was right, regardless of how many people would die or have electrodes attached to their testicles. No one likes to talk about their insane mixture of rage, confusion, and fear, the way we felt mortal terror while becoming fully erect at the possibility of bloody revenge. It’s too shameful to admit that we craved some form of domination, both of ourselves and others.

It’s been 15 years since a group of sexually neurotic middle-class Saudis brought down the World Trade Center. The world is smoldering with ruins created as a result of our fear. That fear is the thing we chose to remember least about 9/11. Our films tell us stories about emotional closure, whether it’s Adam Sandler finally getting laid or Jessica Chastain weeping cathartically after we killed the big bad guy. Now, nativism rages in the country we declared “united” 15 years ago, and three civil wars take place in the part of the world we said we would democratize. Films will tell you the story you want to hear, but it helps if you’ve been lying to yourself the whole time, too.

Incentives and Price Gouging

Does price gouging create incentives to increase supply? Sure, but that doesn’t mean that children won’t die unnecessarily.

I recently argued that Gregory Mankiw overlooked something simple but important in his defense of price-gouging: the fact that some people have more money than others, thus price gouging makes sure rich people will be the ones who end up with all of the goods being gouged. In making this point, I did not address another component of the economic defense of price-gouging. It’s worth going through that component, since I do not wish to receive angry letters from economists telling me to Take An Econ 101 Class (every time you question a dogma of economics, they tell you to take an Econ 101 class, on the assumption that you must simply not understand rather than understand and disagree). It goes, roughly, as follows:

The efficiency of price-gouging is not just about making sure those who want the good the most get the good. It is also about increasing supply. If there is a storm, and water bottles are in short supply, they may cost $500 at first. But the high price creates an incentive for profiteers to flood the area with more water bottles, to capitalize on the high prices. Soon, prices will come lower, and there will be far more water in the area, because “price gouging” created an incentive for new suppliers to find ways to get water to people. The same is true in the Hamilton example. Yes, only rich people will get to see Hamilton. But if Hamilton tickets are going for $2400, producers will realize how much money there is to be made on plays. They will therefore put on more plays, and ticket prices will go down. 

So high prices for goods in short supply create incentives to make more of those goods, and therefore lower prices. Price gouging is therefore good.

Now, the key thing here is the idea of a supply that can be expanded. If we assume a supply that cannot be replenished, then prices will continue to remain high, and a highest bidder process is just a guarantee that only the wealthy will have access to the thing.

The question, then, is whether it’s possible to make more of the stuff being demanded. In the case of Hamilton, that happens to be dubious. After all, you can make more plays, but you can’t easily make more Hamiltons. The people who most want to see Hamilton do not want to see something in the broad category “musicals.” They want to see Hamilton, the amazing show that simply everyone is raving about. There are such things as scarce goods of which more cannot be produced, e.g. Van Gogh paintings, or signed Elvis records. Or beachfront property, another classic economist’s example. Sometimes if the price is high, people will make more of a thing. But sometimes that’s simply impossible. So in the “water after a storm” example. It might be true that someone will bring more water to sell if water is going for $500. But not if the roads are flooded and nobody can get through. If it’s going to take two weeks for the gas station to get more water, and also two weeks for the entrepreneurs in trucks to sort it out and get things through, then by the time the profiteers arrive the price will be back to normal, and the only consequence of the gouging will have been to make sure that the wealthy (those who can pay $500 for water) rather than the committed (those willing to get up early to go and get water) will end up with all the water.

The “Econ 101” framework tells a plausible story, but ignores the fact that there are actually two equally plausible stories. Both of these stories probably occur under different conditions to different degrees, and it requires empirical research to sort out which of them actually occurs when. So if you and I and a team of people get stranded on an island, and I happen to be the one who has brought a trunk full of Doritos, I could charge you exorbitant prices per bag. Only the people who could afford it would eat. And any incentive to increase supply would be meaningless, because no matter how much you’d be willing to pay, nobody can get us any more food. Yet there are other situations in which supply is far more elastic and the temporary increased price will bring new supplies flooding in, restoring prices quickly to their original level just as the fable says will happen. Most of the time, the actual situation is between the two.

It’s important, then, to realize that we are dealing with a story about how we think reality will operate based on deduction from a certain set of axioms, rather than an observation of what reality actually does do. So we might expect supply to keep flowing in, as people in trucks bring water to the disaster area to make a killing, until water prices go down to their ordinary levels. But it could also be that, long before prices get down to the point where poor people can afford them, entrepreneur profiteers stop rushing in with replacements. The original water sells for $500. Then a bunch of guys come in trucks. They increase supply, so the cost goes down to $300. I (and my thirsty child) still can’t afford it, because I have $40. Then another wave of trucks comes. The price goes down to $200. I still can’t afford it. The next day, business as usual is fully restored and prices fall back to $2. But by that time, my child is dead.

In that scenario, allowing the free market to work has indeed increased supply. It has resulted in more people having water than would otherwise have had it. And yet it has also resulted in more children dying than would otherwise have died (if we had a “first-come, first-served” system, all the poor desperate dads would be first). So, as so often occurs with capitalism: we are in the aggregate better off, yet poor people are far worse off.

That doesn’t mean that anti-price gouging laws are generally a good idea, since there are circumstances in which the Econ 101 story does happen. After Hurricane Katrina, some guy got arrested for buying a bunch of generators in Kentucky and bringing them to Mississippi to sell at twice the price. It’s crazy to arrest someone in those circumstances, and criminalizing new things should generally be done cautiously. Nevertheless, there are perfectly plausible scenarios in which gouging doesn’t do anything to increase supply, it just enriches people who have had the good fortune to be in possession of the sole remaining supplies of a good. After all, when the zombie apocalypse comes, it will be very difficult for gougers to make the “incentives to supply” argument. I might go into the post-apocalyptic convenience store, and ask why soup is going for $400 a can:

“Because supply is scarce.”

“Yes, but I can’t afford it and I have a hungry child. Why should you get $400 just because you had the good fortune to be holding all the soup when the apocalypse arrived?”

“Look, don’t blame me. I’m helping you. I’m incentivizing others to come and slightly undercut my outrageous prices. If I sell soup at $400, and someone comes along selling it at $300, the price will go down and there will be more soup for everyone.”

“So when will someone come along with cheaper soup?”

“Well, never. The soup factory was swarmed by zombies.”

“So all of this incentives crap is pure fantasy, and you’re just trying to squeeze as much money as possible out of the last soup on earth.”

“Yes.”

Thus there’s not going to be any more supply forthcoming. All that’s left is to decide what to do with what we have left, and production incentives are irrelevant. It doesn’t seem impossible to me that many disasters are more like the zombie apocalypse, where new supplies do not show up magically, and that since it’s actually nearly impossible to bring new supplies, nobody does it.

Likewise, with Hamilton, the question is this: what actually happens? Well, it seems like what happens is that the Mankiws of the world buy up all the tickets, regardless of whether they care very much about seeing the show. And producers don’t necessarily think “Wow, people love shows, let’s produce more shows” leading to a reduction in price. They think “Wow, people love Hamilton, wish we had Hamilton” because demand hasn’t increase for “shows,” it has increased for this hit show.

Of course supply increases as a result of price hikes happen all the time. But it’s plenty plausible for there to be situations in which it does not happen, and in those situations, people with the most need can get deprived, with totally disproportionate and unnecessary distribution going to the people with the most preexisting wealth. Thus it’s important to recognize that gouging may not have the advantages economists say, and the question of whether it actually does should be evaluated empirically rather than with stories.

The primary point of the original critique of Mankiw was not to advocate a restriction on gouging, but to scold economists for treating “how much a person pays” and “how much a person values a thing” as identical, even though this would only be true in the absence of economic inequality. Regardless of whether the “gouging creates incentives to restore supply” argument works, one should acknowledge that gouging also makes sure that those with the least money get served last. That means that gouging reduces the degree to which the neediest get served. However, it’s also true that the incentives-creation argument is far less robust than it seems. Whether it’s true depends on what happens in the real world, a place that has a tendency to prove so many fables false.

The Limits of Liberalism at Harvard

Harvard’s faculty are sincerely committed to progressive values… until it comes to their own institution.

One of the claims you hear a lot these days is that the new progressive coalition of the liberal left will consist of women, people of color, and urban professionals of the sorts you find at universities or in the media or Google or places like that. This coalition was first mooted by the McGovern campaign, and a lot of breathless commentary now sees the Democratic Party, particularly in its Clintonite wing, as the fruition of that vision. On any given night on Twitter, you’re sure to find some liberal journalist or academic braying about his happy association with this constellation of forces.

But the recent, successful strike of Harvard’s dining hall workers, many of whom are women and people of color, is a useful demonstration of the limits of that vision. While Harvard’s liberal scholars get $10 million grants to study poverty, Harvard workers like Rosa Ines Rivera are forced to manage realities like this:

I can’t live on what Harvard pays me. I take home between $430 and $480 a week, and this August, I fell behind on my $1,150 rent and lost my apartment. Now my two kids and I are staying with my mother in public housing, with all four of us sharing a single bedroom. I grew up in the projects and on welfare. I want my 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to climb out of the cycle of poverty. But for most of my time at Harvard it’s been hard.

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As Rivera explains, the strike brought out into the open all the issues that are so dear to the contemporary liberal imagination: spiraling health care costs, stagnating wages, and the invisibility and disrespect generally shown toward the poor, immigrants, and people of color. (The problem, it should be noted, isn’t limited to Harvard: a recent survey of the University of California found that 70% of its workers struggle to put a decent meal on the table, and nearly half sometimes go hungry.)

The dining hall strike seems like a natural cause for the liberal Harvard professor, no?

While the union and its supporters did a heroic job of mobilizing support on the Harvard campus and its surroundings, the fact remains that only 130 to 150 of Harvard’s instructional staff even signed a petition in support of the strike. And of those, many seem to be instructors, lecturers, visiting faculty, and the like. According to one count, Harvard has nearly 1000 tenure-track or tenured faculty, of whom only 65 signed. Less than 10%, in other words. I can think, off the top of my head, of a lot of big names on the Harvard faculty who are prominently associated with contemporary liberalism, who think Trump and all that he represents is a shanda, who love the multicultural coalition that is the Democratic Party, and who are nowhere to be seen on that petition.

I suspect, though I can’t be sure, that some portion of the faculty who didn’t sign don’t necessarily oppose the cause of the workers. But neither could they be bothered to do much of anything to support them.

William F. Buckley loved to say, “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.” But when it comes to the working class lives of women, immigrants, and people of color, perhaps Buckley, were he alive today, wouldn’t mind living under a government of the Harvard faculty.

We Love Our Prizewinning Immigrants

America already loves certain kinds of immigrants. But the immigration debate isn’t about Nobel laureates.

When the Nobel Prizes were announced earlier this month, pro-immigration activists were handed an extremely persuasive talking point: all six of the U.S.’s prizewinners in the sciences were immigrants. With the exception of Bob Dylan, who is from outer space, every single one of the laureates was born in a country other than the United States. Champions of immigration reform quickly cited this impressive factoid as a new demonstration of why the country should be more welcoming of those from elsewhere, and why Trumpism risks destroying the country’s mind in addition to its soul.

It should be noted, first of all, that it is unwise to cite the receipt of a Nobel Prize as any metric of human intellectual or moral quality. Both Henry Kissinger and Milton Friedman have Nobels on their curriculum vitaes, despite being two of the foremost causes of international human misery. Notorious eugenicist William Shockley won the physics Nobel in 1956, and spent the rest of his days diagnosing the “intellectual and social deficits of the American Negro” and proposing to sterilize everyone with an IQ under 100. T.S. Eliot was a proud Nobel laureate, and advised that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

The various Nobel committees have notoriously erratic judgment, having awarded Barack Obama a Peace Prize for his expedient conduct of global drone warfare. Any attempt to build a society by recruiting Nobel laureates will attract some unsavory characters indeed. Woodrow Wilson has won a Nobel Prize, but would any country not be better off without the presence of an Woodrow Wilson? For every Malala on the list, there is a Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres.

The same weakness undoes the “Steve Jobs was a Syrian migrant” argument. It’s a very good argument if you think Steve Jobs was a genius. If you think he was a talentless and evil parasite, on the other hand, the argument should technically steer you toward the Trump position. If “good, talented” immigrants make the persuasive case for relaxing border controls, then the presence of any “bad or cruel” immigrants makes a similarly persuasive case for tightening them.

The broader point here is that immigrants shouldn’t need to win Nobel Prizes. Pro-immigration activists often end up making arguments like this, that tout all the extraordinary virtues held by immigrants. In doing so, they miss the argument’s corollary: if immigrants should be admitted because they are angels, what about those who aren’t angels? As Brianna Rennix has pointed out previously in Current Affairs, liberal arguments for immigration are too often based on appeals to self-interest: immigrants grow the economy or they do the jobs we don’t want to do. Those who make arguments like this, well-intentioned though they may be, ultimately endorse the idea that immigrants should be admitted because they serve the rest of us. In doing so, they fail to make the moral case: immigrants should be admitted because they deserve to have the better lives they seek, and because we have no reason to deny them those lives.

The Nobel-based argument for immigration is all the more irrelevant and damaging because the United States already does love its prizewinning immigrants. The country never has a problem letting in those who can bring sufficient glory to the nation, or endow it with piles of money. We fast-track the applications of those whose intellects we can use (and make work visas available for those with MAs and PhDs), and we have an explicit provision for millionaire foreigners to bribe their way to legal status.

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When we’re talking about Nobel-winners, we’re simply not talking about the kinds of immigrants that Americans want to have thrown out of the country. This year’s physics prize was awarded to three British immigrants at Harvard. The Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to two immigrants, one British, one Finnish. The so-called immigration debate doesn’t even touch these categories of immigrants. Undocumented British economists at Harvard do not show up in Trump speeches. The only immigrants America seeks to exclude are poor, black or brown immigrants, who usually don’t speak English. If the United States had a problem with unauthorized immigrants as a class then the government would be targeting (and people would be panicking about) the largest population of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.: Canadians.

But nobody has problem with “immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants” as broad categories, because immigration policy in the United States is informed by notions of how much each immigrant is worth, according to economic and race-based conceptions of the value of a human being. Citing numbers of Nobel prizes only reinforces this pernicious conception, and implies that immigrants should be measured on criteria of “merit” rather than need.

Moral licensing is a concept in social psychology, suggesting that when a group does something “good” it often then feels licensed to do more “bad” then it might otherwise do. It often manifests by permitting a few “exemplary” people from a disfavored class  to achieve high status, as an excuse to disregard or oppress the rest of them. The usually-worthless-but-occasionally-mildly-insightful Malcolm Gladwell points out examples of this, including the Nazis’ love of Jewish poet Berthold Auerbach, and how the election of Barack Obama provided American racists with a means of convincing themselves they weren’t racist at all. The celebration of Nobel winners risks enabling precisely this kind of moral licensing. It is perfectly possible, to laud some immigrants and simultaneously kill, deport, starve, overwork, and brutalize others. And if we think of ourselves as a country that is kind to immigrants, because we let PhDs and millionaires come here and win Nobel prizes, we will miss the number of Central Americans sent back to their home countries to face brutal violence, or the number of Syrians who must live desperate lives because the people of Idaho think refugees will rape American children.

We would do well to consider that immigrants achieve our basic moral worth not by winning Nobel Prizes, but simply by being human.

Do Economists Actually Know What Money Is?

Greg Mankiw thinks Hamilton scalpers are fantastic. Of course he does. He’s rich.

Economist Gregory Mankiw is very pleased to have been gouged by a scalper, he informs us in a recent New York Times column. Mankiw recently went to see the Broadway musical Hamilton, and paid the going rate for a ticket: $2,500. Yet he was far from dismayed at having paid this extraordinary sum. In fact, he describes those who object to price-gouging as “pernicious.”

That’s because Mankiw adopts the standard economist’s view on exorbitant prices for goods: where the layman sees gouging, the economist sees the sublime operation of the law of supply and demand. As Mankiw says, “terms like ‘scalping’ and ‘price gouging’ are pejoratives used to demonize those who resell tickets at whatever high prices the market will bear.”

People are wrong, Mankiw says, to say that Hamilton tickets are “hard to come by.” In fact, he reports, they are extremely easy to come by. You just have to be willing to spend several thousand dollars to get them. For Mankiw, as for most economists, this means that the market is working. People who are willing to pay the most for tickets are getting the tickets, and “private individuals” are reaping “mutually advantageous gains from trade.”

He gives a parallel example. In 2009, Jay Leno decided that what unemployed auto workers needed the most was free tickets to a Jay Leno concert. So he gave them a bunch of tickets, which many of them promptly tried to sell on eBay for $800 each. Leno was horrified. But Mankiw thinks Leno should have been pleased. After all:

Some unemployed workers, presumably short on cash, thought that the $800 in their pockets was more valuable than an evening of laughs. Similarly, the ticket buyers would voluntarily give up their $800 for a seat. The transaction makes both buyer and seller better off.

Thus the free market reveals what each individual values, and how much they value it. If I keep my Jay Leno ticket, rather than selling it, it is because I value the experience of seeing Jay Leno more than $800. If my coworker sells his ticket, it is because he prefers the money. Everyone gets what they want the most, as the market efficiently satisfies our preferences.

Yet when economists tell this fable, they neglect a single crucial fact: some people are wealthier than other people. The reason Mankiw loves price hikes is that they don’t affect him, because he has so much money that he doesn’t really care what price he pays for a Hamilton ticket. Wealth confers the ability to jump to the front of the line, bypassing those who may want to see the show far more but who have less money to spend on theater tickets.

To return to the Jay Leno example: Mankiw thinks it’s wonderful that the unemployed workers sold their tickets on eBay. Thanks To The Glorious Free Market, Everyone Is Better Off. But this overlooks something crucial: the workers may not be happy about having to sell their tickets. Perhaps one of the unemployed workers was absolutely thrilled when Jay Leno gave him a ticket. Perhaps he and his wife met at a Jay Leno concert in the 80s, and he couldn’t believe his good fortune in having been handed the perfect anniversary present. But then he realized that his child’s medical bills were more pressing, and the tickets would have to go. Perhaps he cried about it that night, thinking about the gift he wished he could given his loved one.

The situation surely differed depending on the unemployed workers’ personal finances. Others might not have given the slightest crap about Jay Leno, but might have had savings to live on and enjoyed the opportunity to have a night out. In each instance, the outcome does not reflect how much the workers want their tickets, but how financially desperate they are. Thus what Mankiw sees as a measure of preference is in fact largely a measure of hardship. Economic outcomes aren’t a product of what people value, but how much money they have to throw around. If I am a rich fart who likes setting paintings on fire, I might buy up a set of van Goghs and barbecue them. I might get an ounce of enjoyment out of this, but really not particularly care very much. It’s certainly hard to argue that because my bid was the highest, the paintings went to their most-valued use. And yet this is the logic of economic efficiency.

Another example: you see a man drowning. You are about to toss him a life preserver. But then you remember Mankiw’s words: there is no shame in figuring out what the market will bear.

“How much would you pay for me to toss you this life preserver?” you shout to the man.

“Blub,” he replies.

“I’m afraid ‘blub’ just won’t do,” you call back, beginning to walk away. Through mouthfuls of seawater, he manages to spit out the words: “I’ll pay whatever you want, just toss the damn life preserver!” As he thrashes about, struggling for his life, you manage to strike a deal. You will toss the life preserver, and he will turn over all his worldly assets to you as soon as he hits land.

For economists, what has just occurred is an efficient transaction. Each person has been made “better off.” The person who tosses the life preserver gets paid, and the drowning man gets saved, by paying someone to toss a life preserver. Everyone is happy.

Of course, in reality, you have extracted a person’s entire wealth from them by threatening to let them die, and callously refused to engage in the most basic of moral human behaviors unless you get paid for it. You have acted like a total sociopath. (Or, in other words, like an economist.)

Many economists might object to the example. “Well, that’s different, that’s coercion, because someone’s life is at stake.” That’s certainly a fair distinction: there is something different, and worse, about increasing prices when withholding goods from someone will actually kill them. In fact, though, economists frequently do defend precisely this kind of gouging. The classic example of highly inflated prices is the market for essential supplies in the wake of a disaster. Many economists simply do not see the problem with charging $500 for a jug of water or a gallon of gas after a hurricane. As Matthew Yglesias writes, letting merchants raise prices if they think customers will be willing to pay more isn’t a concession to greed,” rather, it “creates incentives for people to think harder about what they really need.”

And high prices for essential goods certainly do create an incentive not to waste them. That is, unless you’re rich. It doesn’t create any incentive for rich people to think about what they really need, because a rich person could buy a dozen $500 bottles of water after a hurricane and pour half of them into the street. If everyone had the same amount of money, high prices for scarce goods would indeed cause us to have to bid to see who was willing to give up the most, and therefore who valued the goods most. But everyone doesn’t have the same amount of money, which means that those who are willing to “give up” the most aren’t really giving up anything at all, because their wealth means they think nothing of paying a price that you or I might balk at.

What is most bizarre is that economistically-inclined thinkers like Yglesias and Mankiw, who argue that price-gouging efficiently allocates goods, seem not to have any idea what money is. They do not realize that, the greater the inequality, the less true it is that “the price someone can afford to pay” constitutes “the relative value they place on the item.” I might be a high-school theater kid who would give my entire savings to go and see Hamilton. But Greg Mankiw, who is just bored in New York for an evening and wants something to do, is so rich that he can easily outbid the pitiful piggy bank of crumpled bills I have spent months working overtime to collect.

The economic argument for price gouging demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of what wealth actually is to begin with. Yglesias thinks it is silly to give post-disaster supplies out first-come, first-serve rather than to the highest bidder, because this “allocates them arbitrarily to whoever shows up first.” He doesn’t mention that gouging allocates these goods non-arbitrarily to whoever has the most money. The same oversight occurs in much of the discussion around Uber’s “surge pricing.” Financial journalist James Surowiecki, in dismissing consumer concerns about Uber’s practice of multiplying prices during times of scarce supply, speaks disparagingly of “people’s implicit assumption that prices should be set, in some sense, independently of supply and demand.” Yet this assumption is based on a perfectly rational instinct: the feeling that it is unfair when certain things that should be accessible to all can be had only by the rich. People who actually need Uber rides might have to forgo them, so that people who do not need Uber rides (but have lots of money) can have them.

Yet Mankiw, who served on the Counsel of Economic Advisers, does not actually even see the most basic implications of his position. As he writes:

It was only because the price was so high that I was able to buy tickets at all on such short notice. If legal restrictions or moral sanctions had forced prices to remain close to face value, it is likely that no tickets would have been available by the time my family got around to planning its trip to the city.

Of course, the reason no tickets would have been available is that they would have been distributed more equitably, to those who showed up first, rather than to the jackass Harvard professor who strolled up to the theater five minutes before and plopped down a few grand. Yet for Mankiw, a good world is one in which he gets Hamilton tickets, and a bad world is one in which he does not. He cannot conceive of the possibility that it might be otherwise: that the best of all possible worlds is the one in which Gregory Mankiw is gruffly refused admission to Hamilton, as he desperately wails and throws handfuls of bills at the ticket-taker. That the best world is the one in which each is rewarded in accordance with what they need and desire, rather than what they have or own.

The ISIS Hysteria Industry

How has a group with such little actual military power created such overblown global paranoia?

There are few conceivable gaps larger than that which exists between ISIS as an actual real-world insurgency and ISIS as a media phenomenon. While the bungling jihadis have persistently floundered and self-destructed in the upper Levant, they’ve managed to find spectacular success convincing credulous western audiences of their vast and formidable power.

The overrating of ISIS as a military force and geopolitical power was as vexing as it was grimly unsurprising. That level of dumbfounded fear is exactly what they wanted, with the group’s constant attempts at media manipulation betraying its obsessive attention to self-marketing and public posturing. In so few words, ISIS desperately cares what you think. And the Western press has happily indulged them.

ISIS has lost greater than an aggregate 50% of their peak territory in Syria and 20% in Iraq. Leaked documents reveal the group is overrun with internal discontent, managerial incompetence, and low morale. Reports from inside the caliphate can sound like Monty Python sketches; British expats who join the Islamic State complain that their fellow jihadis seem incapable of forming an orderly queue, and frequently steal shoes or unplug cell phone chargers without permission. (“I knew you chaps were barbaric, but this is ridiculous!”)

Militarily, they suffer excruciating fatality rates against more organized forces, and lack the resources and manpower necessary to hold key supply lines. Prominent figures within the ISIS leadership are dying like flies. Despite the yammering bravado of their earlier propaganda, ISIS’ official media apparatus is beginning to release statements conceding that their project in the upper Levant is not long for this world. Even the most cursory analysis reveals that the self-declared Caliphate is doomed.

And they’ve always been doomed. Even at their peak, ISIS was confined harshly by limited territorial reach and military resources. The respective civil wars in Iraq and Syria led to the rapid disintegration of both states. As is typical with national dissolution in deeply sectarian regions, militias and de facto territorial divides form along the most logical sectarian and ethnic demarcations. ISIS is a middling Sunni sectarian militia who emerged in the midst of Syria and Iraq’s parabolic apex of chaos and disintegration. What we witnessed throughout 2013 and 2014 wasn’t an act of astounding power or military genius, but merely a group of reckless scavengers staging a low-rent desert blitzkrieg throughout the upper Levant’s sparsely populated, neglected flatlands. ISIS’ ostensible rise to geographic prominence was little more than a frenetic smash-and-grab campaign enabled by a lack of cohesive opposition. Their rapid, humiliating collapse as a military presence is as unsurprising as their emergence from Iraq’s long-simmering sectarian tempest.

The one domain in which ISIS was an unprecedented success was in manipulating the Western media, especially through stoking the fires of paranoia and hype. Examining their various propaganda videos, one is struck by the meticulous attention to production quality. You weren’t looking at grainy, amateur output. Their releases betrayed a calculated and pre-planned intent to reach a mass audience. ISIS’ various beheading videos combined the deliberate horror of staged murder along with fantastical braggadocio. Jihadi John, the nickname of the (now deceased) ISIS theater kid who starred in many of their more notorious videos, declared “Let the nightmare for Japan begin!” in the clip featuring the beheading of Japanese war journalist Kenji Goto. It also goes without saying that this aforementioned cataclysm against Japan and its people never actually transpired.

There’s a lot to be gained by posing as the most ruthless clique in the jihadi game.

In a sick sense, ISIS had a rather astute grasp of media and internet virality. One of their more notorious early stunts involved using a hashtag associated with the 2014 World Cup to broadcast Twitter posts showing decapitations. Not only was this a typically self-aggrandizing and dramatic move, but it also allowed them to psychically interject themselves into an event that had nothing to do with the Syrian insurgency whatsoever. It was another telling and revealing moment that condensed the core goals of their media apparatus into a single Twitter gambit.

There’s a lot to be gained by posing as the most ruthless clique in the jihadi game. Militias with subpar organization, training, and overall firepower often fall back on invoking fear to compensate against their various deficits. Which certainly worked back in 2014 when ISIS was ousting the demoralized Iraqi National Army from posts in Sunni-dominant western Iraq. The Iraqi National Army consisted overwhelmingly of scared Shia boys who had no vested interest in defending Sunni territory, and oftentimes fled before ISIS even fired a shot.

ISIS’ malevolent posturing served as an essential recruitment tactic. To a whole swath of clueless Sunni kids throughout the Muslim world, ISIS had succeeded fantastically in appearing tough and menacing. They looked like the winning team, one consisting of fierce jihadi badasses who had a knife in one hand and a Qu’ran in the other.

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This might sound like a superficial explanation, but it’s one that neatly underscores a particular reason for the group’s obsessive self-broadcasting. Regardless of time or place, a region’s irregular militias consist overwhelmingly of very young men – it is effectively impossible to overestimate both the recklessness and misplaced, angry romanticism of guys in their early 20s who dream of dying for a cause. And on a practical level, untrained yet over-eager soldiers make excellent suicide soldiers and cannon fodder. ISIS had succeeded in using the mass media to brand themselves as the Great Jihadi Hope, irrespective of whether or not their tinpot caliphate was actually sustainable. Their media apparatus was never more noisy and self-aggrandizing than in the wake of capturing new territory or staging a civilian massacre.

ISIS desperately wanted to be seen as both omnipresent and omnipotent, an infinitely capable and ruthless band of invincible jihadis who were only one step away from barreling into your hometown.

Which brings us to the frankly embarrassing ways many western news organizations have portrayed the jihadi insurgency. When ISIS began capturing territory, American broadcasters had an arms race to see who could cover their rise in the most breathless, hysterical manner possible. The western media and various pundits rapidly formed a weird, unintentional symbiosis with ISIS’s propaganda wing. The jihadis depended on broadcasting networks for amplification and exposure, while those same networks leaned on ISIS to fuel the sensationalism-as-ratings model of newscasting to which our networks are so hopelessly addicted.Luckily for them, the western (especially American) media was all too happy to indulge this. The consequence is that the public was ruthlessly bombarded with months of overwrought scare stories and dumb hysteria at the expense of accurate, cogent analysis.

The persistent, and persistently obnoxious, refrain across network news outlets during this earlier period was that “ISIS now controls a span of territory larger than Great Britain”. It was the perfect condensation of that attitude – hyperbolic, ignorant of situational realities, and shot through with fear-mongering innuendo. Never mind that a majority of the territory ISIS claimed to control was uninhabited desert wasteland. Comparing their territorial reach with the U.K. was the exact right note to strike with viewers convinced ISIS was only one victory away from rolling right into England herself. ISIS was of course happy to indulge this fantasy, with the group routinely screaming about their alleged plans to conquer parts of Europe – including the Vatican, of all places. This too was repeated with breathless sensationalism across various news outlets, exponentially amplifying the perceived menace of a localized desert militia who had little more than anarchy and national fracture to thank for their fragile moment of prominence.

This fear-mongering wasn’t restricted to media outlets either, with various American politicians ranting about the threat a middling insurgent group like ISIS posed to history’s single greatest martial power. Former presidential candidate and South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham once declaimed on Fox News that “[ISIS] is intending to come here” and that “the President needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home”. Which might have been the definitive nadir had Marco Rubio not later stated his opposition to gun control on the grounds that, “God forbid ISIS pays a visit to you, to our community, the last thing standing between them and our families may be the ability to protect ourselves with our guns”. For a considerable stretch of time, ISIS’ media apparatus found dedicated allies among America’s more hysterical politicos. And despite the persistence of these assertions, it seemed no one dared ask the likes of Lindsey Graham exactly how ISIS would manage to invade a nation containing both 300 million people and the world’s most sophisticated military infrastructure.

From this odd, codependent relationship emerged a small cottage industry in ISIS-related literature. Seeking to capitalize upon this newfound fascination with an insurgency that was (erroneously) perceived to have emerged abruptly and without precedent, publishers churned out tomes both brief and voluminous for a hungry and frightened public. Some of those were intelligent and insightful, others were dishonest or crafted to further indulge this cowed sense of terror. For much of the American public, “ISIS” seemed little more than a Rorschach test to gauge one’s predetermined fear over a faceless Muslim horde somehow overrunning America or otherwise engaging in the act of evil one dreaded most. At their best, these various books serve as a sober analysis of a complex issue. At their worst, they seem indistinguishable from ISIS’ own public relations team.

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One of the more intelligent, incisive mass-market books on ISIS has been penned by intelligence operative Malcolm Nance. A refreshingly sober voice, Nance has given various interviews in the past two years that stand out for their depth of analysis knowledge. Thankfully he has written Defeating ISIS, since it can serve as an antidote to the unhelpful hysteria that has cropped up in the wake of ISIS’ emergence from the backwoods of western Iraq.

Defeating ISIS starts with the mordant observation that “Apparently in the eyes of many in the news media, political world, and academia… a new group, far more powerful and capable than al-Qaeda, had mysteriously descended from thin air.” This implicit conviction that ISIS somehow emerged spontaneously and without warning seemed to only fuel the subsequent belief that the jihadis could do the same outside of Iraq as well.

Nance rapidly dispels the illusion, subjecting it to the clarifying light of the upper Levant’s recent military and political history. He dedicates the earlier portions of his book to outlining the legacy of local disintegration and militant Salafism that preceded ISIS, carefully analyzing the various catalysts that made the jihadi insurgency possible. History is driven by the logic of motive and precedent, something to which Nance is highly attuned and applies rigorously to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq. He notes that the various conditions that enabled ISIS had been brewing for some time, and that experts and intelligence operatives had been well aware of an increasingly active insurgency in western Iraq. ISIS’ emergence amounted to a local insurgency reaching critical mass, and using a window of opportunity to burst forth from its confines and overrun easily captured terrain.

The remainder of his book stands as a proscription for how to contain and wither what will likely be a militia with limited geographic endurance. The central value of Nance’s work is ultimately written into its title. Defeating ISIS outlines that the jihadi group can, with intelligent application of diplomatic and counterinsurgency methods, be eventually defeated. It’s a practical counterpoint to the useless doomsaying we saw from far too many pundits and politicians. Contrary to the voices who declaimed that ISIS was nigh-unstoppable and strategically omnipresent, Nance outlines the limitations of ISIS’ reach and tactical capacities and how these can be turned against them.

Nance is sensitive to both the cruelty that ISIS has inflicted on innocent civilians as well as the group’s inherent weaknesses. He’s keen to note the sheer fragility of ISIS’ financial infrastructure, and recommends comprehensively severing their sources of funding. He also outlines the paramount importance of unified military opposition and training local forces in counterinsurgency tactics. Beyond this, he outlines that geopolitical fracture remains one of ISIS’ greatest assets. Nance rounds out his analysis with a vision of a Marshall Plan-style project to help stabilize and reconstruct Iraq and Syria in the wake of their respective wars. He notes that in the long run, deescalating local hostility and rebuilding infrastructure will safeguard against the emergence of violent insurgent groups and prevent those with rapacious intentions from gaining a foothold.

Unfortunately, other books written on the jihadi insurgency fall into the precise “Rorschach test” habit that Nance’s work aims to counteract. They often have a predetermined audience, one for which focus on ISIS mainly serves as an excuse to restate some preexisting ideological theme.

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Defying ISIS, written by Johnny Moore and released by the Christian Publishing division of HarperCollins, falls under the long tradition of Christian apologetics. It opens with a definition of martyrdom as understood in traditional Christian theology, before going on to associate that with the horror experienced by Iraq and Syria’s Christian populations in the wake of the jihadi insurgency. As a thematic centerpiece, Defying ISIS emphasizes the suffering of the faithful, and the book’s more compassionate passages do evince genuine sorrow for the suffering endured by all religious and ethnic minorities living throughout the upper Levant.  

But Moore intertwines this with boilerplate post-9/11 hysteria about the omnipresence of menacing terrorists, and dives into some pretty odious fear-mongering, including a remarkably deranged chapter titled “ISIS is in Your Backyard” that hammers away with unceasing aggression how “ISIS represents a group of people who share the same ideology that results in only one goal: TO KILL YOU” before spiraling into a list of things allegedly being perpetrated by someone “In a city like yours, in a neighborhood like yours, in a house like yours”. The list of things that “ISIS-inspired people” are ostensibly doing on your very doorstep begins with: “Right now, someone is listening to a hate-filled sermon in English by Anwar al-Awlaki.”And ends with:

“Right now, someone near you is reading about how to make a bomb or blow up an airplane.”

Ignoring the fact that the likelihood of Everytown, USA being hit by a jihadi-planned mass-casualty attack is infinitesimally small, Defying ISIS’ repeated assertion that this alleged ISIS operative who personally intends to kill you “may live next door” somehow manages to exceed even the most fear-mongering news broadcast in terms of sheer unhinged paranoia.

What ISIS is attempting to instill as a foremost objective is a vague, generalized sense of fear.

The book also serves as an unintended microphone for ISIS’ rather noisy propaganda machine. ISIS has long made a business of spewing threats at anyone and everything in an attempt to seem more powerful and menacing than they truly are. Moore’s description of the jihadi menace echoes ISIS’ own propaganda wing, who have threatened mass-casualty attacks against a laundry list of over 60 countries (almost none of which materialized). The back of the book claims that “the ultimate aim of ISIS is to eradicate the world of Christianity,” though ISIS’ core goal centers more on the creation of a pan-Islamic caliphate, and its greatest aggression is often directed at other Muslims. Defying ISIS accepts the group’s most fantastical boasts with absolute credulity, parroting ISIS’ theatrical assertion that a mid-sized desert militia and its idiot sympathizers will somehow eradicate a religion practiced by over 2 billion human beings. (Defying ISIS also features a salutary blurb from Newt Gingrich, noted practitioner of the Christian values of compassion, honesty, and sexual fidelity.)

Never has a group with such limited military and economic resources reached this level of prominence in the public imagination. The murder of helpless reporters and attacks on defenseless minority sects are the work of undisciplined thugs, not conquering armies. Indiscriminately antagonizing everyone around you, as well as wasting resources on civilian massacre, is a surefire recipe for self-destruction. Intelligent militias exercise discipline as well as diplomatic finesse, conserving their resources and leveraging their available assets for longevity.

Like some horrific roman candle, ISIS burned themselves out in a spasm of dumb aggression, self-aggrandizing hostility, and complete neglect for cogent structural, economic, and military planning. The consequence of this is that the jihadis garnered an unprecedented flurry of media attention during their brief moment of eminence, and midwifed a corresponding industry of fear-mongering and bad analysis that only served to parrot their transparently theatrical propaganda. As ISIS’ horrible decisions continue to slingshot back at them and they buckle under the weight of structural collapse and military opposition, we’re left with the ashes of a small cottage industry whose frantic doomsaying looks as empty and fantastical as the declamations of ISIS themselves. We’re fortunate that when it comes to the Islamic State, our shrieking pundits are as wrong as always.

Note: Soon after this article was written, PayPal suspended a Current Affairs business payment due to our suspected violation of “government regulations.” We received a notice asking us to explain why, when paying Mr. Patterson for contributing this piece, we had listed “ISIS” in the “purpose of transaction” box, and informing us that our ability to transfer money would be revoked if we failed to prove that we were in compliance with national security requirements administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). We have submitted an appeal, and note that we find it amusing (1) that PayPal believes supporters of terrorism would openly write “ISIS” as the purpose of their online transactions and that (2) the payment was for article about hysterical Western overreactions to ISIS.

Some Troublesome Questions for Liberals on Borders

We might want to be careful about arguments like “immigration is good for the economy” and “these are jobs Americans won’t do.”

Broadly speaking, there are two perspectives on open borders: the liberal and the libertarian. They are not totally aligned, but they have certain points in common. On the libertarian side, open borders are mandated because the ability to move about as one chooses is a fundamental exercise of freedom. Movement is permissible because the state has no right to restrict it.

The liberal argument is more complex. Unlike free-market libertarians, liberals believe that governments have an obligation to provide social services to residents. For liberals, the state takes on certain administrative responsibilities when it admits new residents. For libertarians, admitting a new resident is costless to the government, because it is not the job of the state to provide a safety net. Thus, when a liberal says that anyone who wishes to should be allowed to cross the border, they are asking the receiving state to incur a certain level of obligation that libertarian open-borders advocates are not.

As a result, liberal open-borders advocates have felt pressured to justify the expenditures that come with immigration. They often do so by arguing that immigration “grows” the economy, and thus, in effect, pays for itself. By this logic, open borders, or any less restrictive immigration process, will economically benefit both incoming immigrant and currently-resident Americans. It has become commonplace in liberal pro-immigration articles to see many citations to studies showing that immigration is an economic boon, and refuting accusations that immigrants over-collect benefits, commit disproportionate numbers of crimes, and take away jobs from American citizens.

There is no doubt a great deal of truth to these arguments: the available statistics certainly seem to show that there is no truth to widespread public perception that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and less likely to pay taxes than native-born Americans. It’s important to neutralize bogeyman scare tactics, and to set the facts straight.

However, we might be wary of the philosophical underpinnings of this particular argument. The economic case for immigration may be attractive—and, for the moment at least, persuasive—but it is essentially a conservative argument, suggesting that human beings ought to be treated in a certain manner because it generates economic benefit, and not necessarily because it is morally required. Of course, liberals don’t really want to look a gift horse in the mouth: with the political climate hostile to the humanitarian plight of even the most sympathetic of migrants, liberals are thrilled to have statistics and pie charts and suchlike to lay before a skittish American public. It isn’t every day that the right thing to do is also the rationally self-interested thing to do, and we should certainly celebrate those joyous occasions when they arise. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the moral dimension of the argument, and in that context there are a few questions worth asking.

1. What about immigrants who aren’t potential job creators?

Should borders only be opened for immigrants who are likely to be economically successful? What about people who are too sick to work? Too old to reenter the workforce? What about people suffering from trauma and PTSD, multiplied a thousandfold by culture shock and the incredible intellectual labor of mastering a new language? The economic argument surely doesn’t hold for these vulnerable individuals, but the idea of turning back certain classes of people at the border as “undesirables” should rightly make us feel queasy. Our current system already operates this way; high-skilled workers can get visas far more easily, and business owners who promise to create jobs can get fast-tracked approval. But the people who are most desperately in need of being admitted may often be the people who are the least “productive.” Are those people less deserving of the freedom to move from place to place? If pro-immigration advocates make the argument that immigrants should be admitted because they make excellent workers, they risk endorsing the argument that immigrants who aren’t excellent workers shouldn’t be admitted.

2. Are immigrants really only doing “jobs that Americans don’t want to do”?

Even if immigration grows the economy overall, it’s possible that those benefits come with costs to people who are extremely vulnerable, and already suffering from extreme structural disadvantages. Among certain categories of low-income workers, immigration may well depress wages and increase competition for jobs. It’s not unreasonable to think that sometimes immigrants and native-born workers do in fact compete for the same jobs. That doesn’t create a moral justification for restricting immigration; native-born workers don’t “deserve” jobs more than immigrants. But it means being honest about the fact that immigrants may displace certain workers.

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3. If Immigrants are doing jobs that Americans won’t do, why is that?

But perhaps immigrants are mostly only doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do. If that’s the case, though, it is because those jobs are so degrading, dangerous, and poorly-compensated that no legally-resident individual would take them. In those cases, employers are paying so little that the positions can only be filled by someone with no work authorization, in desperate need of money and in constant fear of deportation. If there’s a job that native-born Americans literally will not do, it’s probably a job that shouldn’t exist in the first place. The jobs in question are often unsafe. Workers have no bargaining power, and can easily have their wages stolen by employers. Agricultural work, for example, is one of those jobs that native-born Americans supposedly refuse. But that’s because those who work in fields across the country—including children—work punishing hours, are exposed to dangerous pesticides, and are paid pittances for their hard labor. The construction industry, too, has notoriously lax safety standards on work sites with immigrant laborers. In New York City, the skyscraper construction boom has coincided with a 53% increase in injuries, including dozens of fatalities, mostly among undocumented immigrants. (Companies have found that simply paying the OSHA fines is more cost-effective than improving worker safety.)  Is this something to celebrate? Is is something that can even be tacitly accepted as a necessary premise of an economic system? The “jobs Americans won’t do” line has become a key part of the pro-immigration argument, yet it endorses a situation that runs contrary to basic liberal principles of justice. Don’t we want these jobs to get better? Don’t we want them to be well-paid, secure, and humane? But in that case, they would become the sort of jobs Americans would be perfectly happy to do. Will we then have scuppered a major argument for immigration? Anyone who makes the “jobs Americans won’t do” case is implicitly defending a system of morally reprehensible, exploitative labor.

4. What if immigration fails to grow the economy?

What if, as a result of instituting better worker protections, or simply as a result of a variety of economic and social factors, immigration ceases to have positive economic effects? What if it has no economic effect, or someone can produce statistics showing that it is having a negative effect? Do we, at that point, stop allowing immigration? Do we have a global caste system, in which people can enter the U.S. only to the extent that they generate benefits for Americans who happened to have resided there from an earlier date? Of course, immigration may well be an economic boon. But one can conceive of a situation in which it isn’t (if immigrants were poor and depended heavily on government services, and were unable to find jobs, for instance). If the argument for immigration is an economic one, then pro-immigration activists need to be certain that immigration will never have an economic cost. The left has something to learn from the moral clarity of the libertarian case for immigration, which asserts that human beings simply have a natural right to migrate freely. The moral argument is far more robust than the economic one, because it is true universally regardless of changing economic conditions. One doesn’t need to prove that immigrants grow the GDP or that they will never compete for the same jobs as Americans. The better point is that there is no good moral reason for putting up walls and keeping people out. And just as Americans feel entitled to the freedom to go anywhere in the world they please (and would be surprised to be turned away at a border), so everyone else should be granted the same basic entitlement. It’s also worth emphasizing the inherent arbitrariness of global inequality. Given that the earth’s resources are unevenly apportioned, and people’s life circumstances depend on the geographic accident of their birth, shouldn’t we understand this to be a moral evil, and strive to correct it where we can?  Perhaps such arguments will fail to persuade. But they are far more sound, and ultimately, far more honest. Increased immigration should be allowed because it is morally right, not because it is in our narrow economic self-interest.

Suicide and the American Dream

More and more of us are killing ourselves. Is it the exploding of our deferred dreams?

“The millisecond my hands left the rail, it was an instant regret,” recalled Kevin Hines, a man who attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. “My final thought was ‘‘What the hell did I just do? I don’t want to die.’”

Hines picked the bridge for its “simplicity,” it was a four-foot barrier that a person could almost just tumble over. Because the bridge made it so easy to jump, even someone who felt deeply ambivalent, in half a second could impulsively make a choice that they would be unable to undo. You can decide not to jump as many times as you like, but if you decide to jump, it’s the last decision you’ll make.

Suicide is unforgiving like that. It doesn’t matter if one is perfectly content 99% of the time; a single moment of despair will suffice. The majority of suicides are on impulse; studies of people who have survived suicide attempts have found that the time between the decision to kill one’s self and the actual attempt is almost always an hour or less. (It is often less than five minutes.) And 90% of survivors will never ultimately kill themselves, suggesting what the New England Journal of Medicine calls the “temporary nature and fleeting sway of many suicidal crises.” It is disturbing to consider how many people’s brief time on Earth ends with that final thought: “What the hell did I just do?”

It’s very difficult to write about suicide without appearing dreary, depressing, and morbid. Nobody wants to discuss it, nobody wants to read about it. Online, articles about suicide get about as much readership as exposes of sweatshop labor and cow torture, i.e. not a hell of a lot.

But the moment you appreciate the human implications of the statistics, you realize that silence on suicide is a moral outrage. Suicides in America alone are now at 42,000 per year; the country’s suicide rate is the highest it has been in 30 years. That means people, thousands upon thousands of them, made of flesh and deeply sad, are simply popping out of existence one after another. In terms of death toll, it’s fourteen 9/11s per year!

And it’s largely needless. The impulsive nature of so many suicides means that they are preventable. Reducing the easy availability of means, and supporting people through the brief periods of time during which they are most likely to act, can be the difference between their living a full life and their plunging into eternal oblivion.

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It’s very difficult to acknowledge the full implications of the evidence. “I’m walking to the bridge, If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump,” wrote one suicidal man before heading for the Golden Gate. Evidently nobody smiled; he jumped to his death. It might be comforting to believe that a smile wouldn’t actually have made a difference, that he would have made the same choice no matter what. But from what we know, that’s often not true. Many who contemplate suicide are looking for a way out; most do not want to die. A small act of kindness can nudge people from the ledge. (This is a good argument for remembering to smile at strangers.) That fact should be disquieting; it implies that so many tens of thousands of tragedies have been avoidable. It is heartening, however, insofar as it affirms the possibility of saving countless lives.

That makes the city of San Francisco’s longtime indifference toward Golden Gate suicides fairly outrageous. The bridge has been known as a “suicide magnet,” and dozens leap from it every year. Yet for decades, the city has been resistant to putting up a suicide net beneath the bridge. This has largely been for aesthetic reasons, as well as out of a reluctance to spend money on a problem that has little political value. After years of pressure from advocacy groups, in 2014 the city finally agreed to put up a barrier, though at the moment it’s being held up because the steel for the nets has to be American-made.

It’s no surprise that San Francisco dragged its feet, though. Judging from the amount of media attention it gets, suicide is evidently seen as a non-issue in the United States.  Partially, the reluctance has been because of that lie we tell ourselves: that people “would have found some other way.” That’s false, as we know, because the easier it is to do it, the more likely it is to be done. Sometimes it’s inevitable, more often it’s anything but.

Yet there’s also a uniquely American “free choice” aspect to the nation’s blasé treatment of suicide. “If people wish to kill themselves, that’s up to them” seems to be the dominant unspoken attitude. Nobody is forced to do it, thus nobody is responsible but the person who kills herself. (That’s surely one of the reasons that suicide hasn’t taken on a larger place in the country’s gun control debate. Half of all suicides per year are by firearm, and yet mass shootings—which are far rarer—are treated as the greater tragedy.)

The individualist position, which treats every person’s life outcomes as being entirely of their own making, represents both a deep moral callousness and a total indifference to empirical fact. We know that people are irrational, frail, and ambivalent, that they make choices they regret, that their brains lie to them about how much other people love them. Yet the “minding your own business” ethic is a core part of the national ideology. Your choices are your own, and if you don’t like the consequences, well, sucks for you. That line of libertarian-ish thinking is common even in cases where people’s choices are far less free than suicide; there is little sympathy for those devastated by economic crises, or drowning in medical bills. So it’s little surprise that suicide, which appears entirely freely-chosen, should be treated as an entirely private concern.

However, suicide is not some spontaneous product of the will. Like everything else, it’s brought about by a combination of a person’s internal wiring and their external conditions. Nobody would voluntarily choose to be incredibly, desperately sad all the time. Factors like unemployment and a lack of social support are obvious contributors; joblessness alone is thought to cause 45,000 global suicides annually. Depression alone generally doesn’t lead to suicide; on the other hand, depression combined with hopeless life conditions creates the sense of there being “no way out” that can lead a person to feel death is their only available option.

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Consider how Gene Sprague felt in the last days of his life. Sprague, a gentle 34-year-old punk rocker, had suffered severe depression since his mother died during his youth. Sprague had often talked about killing himself, and when asked what he wanted to have for breakfast, would sometimes reply “death.” Sprague’s eventual suicide was therefore not especially surprising, even though it was tragic. But consider what Sprague wrote on his blog in the last entry before his death. Sprague was feeling especially low because he was broke and a job offer hadn’t come through:

I have not heard from the future employer, I have not received a plane ticket to fly to Texas to interview for that job (I was supposed to leave tomorrow), I have completely run out of money, I am out of cigarettes, I am completely out of food, my eBay auctions have not been bid on, and I think my ferret is dying.

Sprague suffered with suicidal depression for decades. But it was only when his material circumstances became unbearable that he actually took his life. In prior times, Sprague had something to cling to. He might have been broke, but at least he had some cigarettes. Or he might have run out of food, but at least his ferret was healthy. It was the “perfect storm” of minor miseries that actually pushed him toward his death. (Even then, Sprague seemed apprehensive, pacing the Golden Gate for 90 minutes before finally standing atop the railing and allowing himself to fall backwards.)

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Economic misery can drive people to the brink. The rising suicide rate in America has corresponded with a rising hopelessness among many about their prospects for financial security. At the same time as the suicide rate has risen, there has been a massive rise in death from alcohol and drug use among poor, less educated whites, who have been among those with the bleakest job prospects in the 21st-century global economy. And, when it comes to suicide itself, rates have risen fastest in Native American communities, which are serially plagued by material deprivation.

The link between inequality and suicide is important. If a huge swath of people is left without any opportunity for advancement, and told that it is because of their own failure of initiative, can we be surprised at a consequent outbreak of suicides? Just listen to the testimony of one internet commenter, who described how college debt and an impossible job market had turned him fatalistic:

Two B.A.s and I can’t find a job making $7.50/hour. Even if I did, what’s the point? Spin my wheels and get further into debt because I can’t make a wage that covers the costs of life? I got degrees in English and History, graduated Spring of 2008…three months before the economic collapse. Things went from ‘you can get $12/hour with any degree’ to ‘You will not be able to work if you have a BA and we’d rather hire someone without one.’ When I was in high school I was making $1500/week. Now I have $22 in my pocket, no job, and come March 1st my debt to my roommate for rent will reach $1500. That’s not including the $30k in student loans I have, or the cost of car insurance…There’s no out, there’s no way to make it work, that I’ve found….  I made all A’s in 27 hours of class in one semester, I’m god damn motivated. I walked four miles yesterday in Louisiana heat to drop off resumes… I work hard at every fucking thing I do, and I lack no motivation whatsoever. Some people do not get this…. we don’t need platitudes and this other bullshit. We need help…. if this shit doesn’t get better soon, and some sort of avenue for self-advancement appears, I’m going to be left to assume that people just don’t want me here enough, and I’m going to leave… It’s either I get an opportunity soon, I step off the mortal coil, or I turn to robbery. If anyone has any better ideas I’m all ears, because fuck if I haven’t explored every option I know about.

At a certain point, if people have to work to live, but do not have any work, they will find that they cannot live. It’s hard to know what to tell someone like this; every reassurance is a lie. Is he ever going to pay off his debts while working minimum wage jobs? No. Is he ever going to advance beyond those jobs? Probably not, unless some massive new market for English majors suddenly opens up.

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Research on the connections between unemployment and suicide has suggested that the link is strongest in countries that usually have low unemployment, meaning that people who expect to find a job but can’t are more likely to kill themselves than people who never had the expectation to begin with. Suicides are therefore partially a product of the frustrated American dream; in a country where one expects that hard work will create success, but hard work yields nothing whatsoever, one is likely to feel like a useless failure.

serious attempt to address suicide has to start, then, with the actual conditions of people’s lives. People are lonely, they are broke, they are desperate, and words of encouragement offer nothing. Usually, attempts to address the suicide problem focus on the lack of adequate mental health care in the country. There are suicide hotlines, but little else to assure people’s long-term mental health. Psychiatric counseling is expensive and often inaccessible. Yet it may be necessary to provide more than just increased access to counseling. Giving people support is obviously helpful. But a country with annual 42,000 suicides has a systemic problem, and needs to think about where despair originates.

The ability to counsel someone like Gene Sprague or the unemployed Louisianan may be limited. Certainly, there are things you can try to tell people, theories for why it’s better to live than to die. Albert Camus has a nice argument for why we shouldn’t kill ourselves; the choice to live is the only way to rebel against the absurdity of our human condition. It’s not a helpful argument, exactly, but it’s nice. There’s always the guilt argument; suicide is a selfish act because it forces other people to feel guilty about stopping you. But as psychiatrist Scott Alexander points out, this amounts to telling the suicidal person that “If you think you’re a burden upon others while you’re alive, just think how much more of a burden you will be on them if you kill yourself.” Perhaps one can shame someone into living, but it’s certainly not optimal (besides, the suicidal have a difficult time believing they will be missed… that’s half the problem to begin with).

The only real way to eliminate American suicide may be to eliminate the viciousness of American capitalism. If people weren’t kept chasing an impossible dream, and were given basic economic security, perhaps they could find the peace and resolve necessary to keep going. At the moment, millions of people face nothing but unendurable bleakness; a less brutally competitive economy means a less brutally unendurable life.

But the first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we have a problem to begin with. Until America treats every suicide victim as a person, one toward whom we have a responsibility of care, 40,000 people will continue to pop off into the darkness with each passing year. The country must decide whether it cares enough to act, or whether the aesthetic value of our shimmering bridges outweighs the cost of installing a net.

Illustrations by Benjamin Saucier.

The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton

In “False Choices,” feminist writers dissect the Clinton candidacy. We speak to three of the contributors.

Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination has widely been seen as a historic milestone for women. But a number of feminists are not so sure that Clinton’s campaign is entirely good news for the cause. False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verso, 192pp., $14.95) brings together a number of essays by feminist writers, exploring different aspects of Clinton’s policies and career, and making the case that a serious feminist politics requires a more critical stance on Clinton. Current Affairs recently spoke to The Nation’s Liza Featherstone, who edited the book, along with Yasmin Nair and Margaret Corvid, who each contributed to it. Speaking on the day after Clinton’s nomination in Philadelphia, we asked why they don’t think of Clinton as a feminist hero, and what kind of feminism they do believe in. 

CA: We’re here on the day after the nomination of the first female candidate for a major party and my question is… isn’t this an exciting historic moment?

LF: That’s your question?! Ok. No, it isn’t very exciting to me. I guess the first female anything is always a bit of a milestone. But in the case of Hillary we’ve been hearing about her inevitability for so long, and her long established anointment as a part of the political elite. We’ve seen this in other countries where a female political figure rises to prominence from her family connections, and it’s really nothing new or interesting. We haven’t seen in those countries that it leads to a great breaking of barriers for other women. And I don’t think that British women who lost their council housing saw Maggie Thatcher’s presence at the top of the political structure as extremely empowering or exciting. Similarly, I think we’re going to see this as a major non-event for American women.

MC: I’m actually a little bit critical and disappointed in all of the coverage denoting this a historic moment. In my own circles I have a lot of liberal friends, people who are saying to vote for Hillary and are extremely excited about this—representation is important to them. But I think the focus on representation is even worse than nothing at all because it closes out opportunities for us to say that feminism is about something more than representation. It’s about systemic structural change that gives women from all areas, races, classes and nationalities more opportunities to be safe, more opportunities to have a good life and have their human rights respected. And so you can talk about Hillary being the first woman as a major nominee, but besides her gender, nearly everything else is against women. That includes her support for neo-liberalism and imperialism. It includes nominating a Vice Presidential candidate who’s soft on choice and is a very big hawk for free trade. You could just keep going down the list. It’s all very disappointing.

YN: I remember the years of Margaret Thatcher and I’m glad Liza brought her up. Thatcher is responsible for the decline of the central welfare state as we know it. She was a woman who was profoundly anti-family, anti-women, anti-union, you name it. But also I remember growing up under Indira Gandhi and other women leaders in the region of what is now known as South Asia. All of whom came out of powerful families. And Indira Gandhi had terrible policies, which included forced sterilization, particularly of lower income men. The dynastic aspect makes an interesting parallel. She came out of a very powerful family and birthed a party that remains more or less now within the purview of one family. After Ranjiv there was Sanjay and so on. And Hillary Clinton is establishing something similar. She’s also an ex-president and she has a daughter who is being given the Clinton Foundation to run. What I see is exactly what we saw with the Gandhis. There’s an ongoing accumulation of cultural and financial capital across generations. And everyone ignores the dynastic element. We had two Bushes, we could have more. We have the great possibility of two Clintons, perhaps even more, because Chelsea Clinton is very young, she’ll have more children, and then I’m sure she’ll enter politics, followed by the children. So for people who talk about this as a historic achievement, there’s a terrible precedent for this kind of historic achievement.

LF: I’m glad you’re talking about the dynastic aspects. After Michelle Obama spoke at the convention, it was really striking how many people said “Oh, she should be president.” Are people just craving these dynasties? What did we have an American revolution for? The one accomplishment of our bourgeois revolution was that we overthrew the idea of monarchy here. Yet people just seem to be pathologically creating and recreating it.

CA: Speaking of the Clintons as a family, to what extent does it make sense to talk about “Clintonism” as a unified philosophy? Every time you associate Hillary with the misdeeds or destructive legacy of Bill there’s a lot of pushback. People say, quite reasonably, that you can’t blame a woman for the crimes of her husband. Yet at the same time there is a massive effort on the part of the Clinton campaign to take credit for the first Clinton Administration’s economic gains. So should we be talking about Hillary as part of something larger called “Clintonism” or not?

LF: It absolutely makes sense to talk about Clintonism. It’s absurd when people say it’s unfair to associate Hilary with the crimes of Bill. After all, it’s not as though she was folding the laundry while all of this was going on. They’ve been a team the entire time, even back in Arkansas they were known as “Billary” and they were sold as a twofer. When Bill was first elected, sometimes you’d get some condescending Republican saying “Oh, ha ha, she’s the one who should be president.” Well, obviously there’s sexism there. But they were always a partnership. And when you look at some of Bill’s most reactionary policies, that’s particularly where you see Hillary being a prominent intellectual partner in crafting the policy as well as a prominent political partner in drumming up support and pushing for it. We see her right there all along the way. So I think it is ridiculous to think she is some sort of waiflike Alice James figure in the back while the men are doing things. It’s a strange sort of victim feminism there.

MC:  Two points. First, the Hillary campaign really tries to have it both ways. In one sense, Hillary is trying to set up some political space for herself as a distinct individual. In another, she is running her campaign based on the record of the first Clinton Administration. But you can’t have both, even though the media would like to think that we have the capacity to believe this confusing set of self-contradictory things. Next, the Clintons are not only consistent in a neoliberal political ideology that you could call “Clintonism,” they are also consistent in the way that they do politics. One thing that both Bill and Hillary have is this kind of changeability in their political perspectives. They’ll believe one thing, say about criminal justice reform decades ago, and now they believe something else. And they both seem to think that they can just give lip service to an issue and then go on and legislate policy however they want.

YN: We have statements to prove that they saw themselves as a team. I remember Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “I’m not staying home baking cookies.” Then the Republicans said she was insulting housewives and she had to walk it back by bringing in a sheet of cookies and doing a photo op with them. But we have documented evidence that they operated as a team. They said it. “Eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill,” that was their slogan. In my chapter, I write about Hillary showing up at the Beijing women’s conference and making a speech about how women’s rights are human rights. And even though we’ve forgotten, that was a pivotal moment in the history of UN, NGO, human rights discourse. Hillary Clinton wasn’t there as “the wife,” she was there as “first feminist.”

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CA: The book frequently makes the point that not only does the rise of Hillary Clinton not represent an advance for women, but it actually hurts them. You go through multiple specific realms, Margaret talking about the criminalization of sex work and Yasmin talking about carceral feminism, and argue  not just that the symbolism is empty, but that actual women who are marginalized and poor are affirmatively hurt by Clinton’s policies.

MC: The point about the symbols not being empty is really important. If the symbols were empty, we could say “Yeah, actually Hillary is not so great, but go ahead and vote for her and here’s some other ideas.” But her symbolic politics actually crowds out actual liberatory politics. Sex work and human trafficking is actually a really good example. There was a speech last night at the DNC by a woman named Ima Matul who is a campaigner against what they call trafficking or modern slavery. And when they were billing the speakers, they talked about Ima Matul as a sex trafficking survivor. But she wasn’t actually a sex trafficking survivor. She experienced forced domestic labor. But the fact that they characterized her as a “sex trafficking” survivor really shows how the DNC and Hillary use the notion of trafficking as a tool to give themselves some feminist credibility. Hillary Clinton has long been an opponent of the full decriminalization of sex work, which sex workers are actually advocating for. When she was Secretary of State she actually used international aid and development money as a tool against it. They wouldn’t give money to countries unless they signed onto a pledge that they would illegalize sex work in their countries and crack down on it. So she’s trying to look like a really good feminist and say look we’re going liberate women who are enslaved. But if Hillary wanted to actually deal with issues of bad working conditions for people who migrate for work in any industry, she would advocate full amnesty for all undocumented immigrants. She would loosen border controls and make sure that people who are migrating for work don’t feel criminalized and that they can go to authorities if there’s a problem.

CA: In your piece, you are very critical of the idea of rescuing women from sex trafficking. But to a lot of people that seems like the most unobjectionable idea in the world. Why are you so critical of something that is so universally embraced?

MC: Because they’re being really sneaky about it. There’s something called the rescue industry, Laura Augustine and Melissa Gira Grant have written about it. There’s a multimillion dollar international industry based on “rescuing” victims of trafficking. And it’s a real good instant feel-good idea for people. But what it’s really doing is reifying, strengthening, concepts of us and them. Consider the fishing industry. People who are in fishing are in an incredibly dangerous industry, there’s lots of bad working conditions there’s lots of risk of injury and death. But nobody is going around talking about making fishing boats illegal. Nobody is doing that. From a socialist perspective, we say that these people need workers’ rights. They need to organize and bargain over their working conditions and have control over their working life. But this idea of “rescuing” people ignores the fact that every job is a negotiated network of subtle consents and coercions. We all have to work for a living. But people talk about migrated sex work as automatically being trafficking, even though they don’t talk that way about other types of work. And instead of improving their working conditions you’re going to “save” them from their work without actually giving them an alternative. Instead, the answer is to lock people up to jail and deport people. But if they actually wanted to fix exploitation, they wouldn’t place new power in the hands of a carceral, criminological state. Instead, the agency would be given to the women themselves, those people who are traveling for all kinds of work.

CA: Perhaps that’s a good transition to Yasmin’s piece on “carceral feminism.” Could you tell us what you mean by that term, Yasmin, and why you think it’s important?

YN: Well, to give a very broad definition, “carceral feminism” is simply the form of feminism that thinks that the apparatus of the state is the best way to end women’s oppression and enable women’s freedom. The underlying logic is that those who oppress women are guilty of criminal acts, and must be put in jail in larger numbers. So that logic has no problem expanding what we call the “prison industrial complex,” if it’s being done for the sake of women. As Margaret indicates, in the example of sex trafficking, you have mostly white liberal feminists demanding that traffickers must be put in jail. But what they ignore is that the system is set up in such a way that it is often the women themselves who end up in prison and are then deported back to the horrendous conditions they may have fled. So, for example, under sex trafficking laws, if a woman who is caught up in the dragnet of sex trafficking raids does not point to someone as her trafficker and label them a criminal, she will frequently be deported. Yet in many cases, those who they are compelled to point to as “traffickers” are in fact community members or people who have even tried to harbor or help them. So, for instance, if I were to give housing or shelter to a woman who is an immigrant and a sex worker, I could be considered a “sex trafficker” under the current law.

So “carceral feminism” takes feminist principles and then ends up increasing criminalization, sees the prison industrial complex as a solution to social problems. Now, there’s a history here, and a reason why feminists turned to this approach. The fight against rape has had little support, and marital rape only became illegal in all 50 states in 1993. So using the law is in some ways understandable. But you end up seeing prison as a cure-all solution, even though prison is just another problem.

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In terms of the Clintons, Hillary Clinton has recently been talking about her opposition to mass incarceration. We have to call bullshit on that. First, obviously, in the 1990s she lent public support to the crime control efforts that grew the prison population more than any other administration. Second, it was the first Clinton Administration that introduced the ten-year ban on undocumented immigrants, which means that if you have been the country without papers and you leave the U.S. and try to re-enter, you are subjected to a ten-year ban from entering. And that ban made people terrified to leave the U.S., their lives are criminalized.

LF: These are perfect examples of how Hillary Clinton is not just an empty symbol as a woman and feminist, but her femaleness and her status as a prominent feminist are actually something that can be used to pursue oppressive policies. That is incredibly important.

CA: If Hillary’s type of feminism is oppressive, then, what type of feminism do you advocate? False Choices seems to be about more than just Hillary Clinton, in that it’s trying to forge a different approach in how to think about feminist issues. It seems to not just be about criticizing her, but advocating a new type of critical, socialist-inspired feminism. And that it wants to get rid of something we might call, I hate using the word “bourgeois,” but bourgeois feminism.

LF: We do kind of sound like old Marxists when we use the term bourgeois. But it’s an important descriptor of a politics that’s about the elite and protecting elite interests. This is exactly why we did this book, we do want to advance a type of left feminism that is not Hillaryism. And we see left feminist writers and thinkers who are so smart, so committed to the way feminism and the material world are actually deeply intertwined. And we want to advance that way of thinking. We aren’t simply haters who hate Hillary Clinton, although… good Lord. The feminism I would like to see replacing Hillaryism in the long run would be one that is deeply committed to the advancement of all women, not just the 1%, or in Hillary’s case, one woman. I’d like to see a feminism that is deeply committed to redistribution of wealth. It’s been amply demonstrated that that is the only thing that actually helps women advance toward anything like parity to men: universal programs like socialized medicine, socialized day care, quality public schools, free higher education. These are the kinds of things that actually do help women. And when we see feminism and socialism coming together that’s a lot more promising for both agendas.

YN: I often speak about the problems with “white liberal feminism.” But you can be a “white liberal feminist” and not actually be white. I have no doubt that under the regime of Hillary Clinton we will get a diverse bunch of capitalists. First the women are allowed in, then the black people then the brown people, so I’m sure the board rooms will be very diverse. But the class structure remains in place. This type of feminism really doesn’t think about an alternative to capitalism but instead thinks about ways to make capitalism more palatable and more diverse and more woman-friendly. So let’s put changing tables in all the bathrooms and that will solve all of our problems. Not that diaper changing tables aren’t important. But they don’t address the fundamental issues facing poor women, like brutal employment conditions.

The class element is implicated in abortion too, which Hillary Clinton supposedly cares about. We had that case of Purvi Patel in Indiana, who was given 10 years sentence for inducing an abortion. These are always poor women, wealthy women are not sent to jail for feticide, because of the class structure. But even though Democrats want us to worry about Donald Trump and what might happen to the Supreme Court, Clinton has as her Vice Presidential nominee a man who has a record of being very anti-abortion. That worries me far more than Donald Trump, who if he gets elected would resign in 3 weeks taking the best china with him, and just wants to turn the White House into some kind of glitzy Trumpian fount of wealth. Until you are unwaveringly in favor of abortion rights, you are never against inequality. Until women can control their bodies, there is no ending inequality, because what prevents women from moving forward in any realm is their inability to control contraception and control whether they want to have children or not.

LF: The recent developments on the abortion issue are really particularly flabbergasting to me. Mo Tkacik writes really well in False Choices about how abortion has become the Democratic Party’s sole selling point to women. But as Yasmin just pointed out, it’s a pretty good one, since abortion rights are foundational to women’s autonomy. What’s amazing, though, is how weak Hillary is on that issue alone. She’s spent a lot of time talking about overturning the Hyde Amendment, but then she picked Tim Kaine, a man who describes himself as a long term supporter of the Hyde Amendment. It’s an amazing slap in the face to all of those women’s organizations who have been, the unkind way to say it is shilling for her, but have been supporting her. It’s really telling to see how superficial her support is for something that most liberal feminists actually regard as an absolute cornerstone of women’s rights.

MC: That’s why we can’t wait for feminist policies to be bestowed upon us from above by a white knight like Hillary Clinton, who is really just mouthing these words to get people to vote for her. In order to force through really feminist and socialist policy in the US we need a movement of women, led by women, particularly women of color, who actually disrupt the social order to get people to sit up and pay attention. The feminists who really inspire me are in groups like Black Lives Matter, which is pretty much mostly lead by black queer women. They are in leadership, they are at the head of the table. But it’s not a boardroom table or an oval office table, it’s a table where they’re plotting how to shut down highways to protest the killings of black men and women by police. So my hope for the future of feminism is in movements like this. Not in political parties or Hillary Clinton.

Slavery Was Very Recent

The children of ex-slaves are still alive. It’s time to recognize just how close we are to “history.”

There are people who are alive and walking the earth today who met those who were slaves. This is both an indisputable, elementary fact and an impossible thing to fully grasp. People, living people, whose eyes you can look into, once looked into the eyes of those who had been slaves. They touched people who had been slaves. They heard the voices of people who had been slaves.

Slavery is not only not just ancient history. It is, in fact, incredibly recent. It is so recent that the daughters of ex-slaves are still walking the earth. It is so recent that there are elderly African Americans who remember sitting on the laps of their own grandparents, who were born into slavery. Today, as I write, people are touching the hands that touched the hands of ex-slaves. As far as the lifespan of the species goes, slavery wasn’t just recent. It was yesterday. 

Nothing about this should be difficult to grasp; one can simply add up the numbers. Slavery ended a hundred and fifty years ago, which is 2 x 75, which, as Louis C.K. points out, is two elderly ladies living and dying back to back. (C.K. also notes that every year, white people seem to add another few hundred years to how long ago slavery was.) Today’s grandmothers were once little girls, and when they were little girls, their own grandmothers had been slaves.

But even though this fact is incredibly simple, it doesn’t seem to have fully seeped in, and its implications are rarely drawn out. If slavery was essentially yesterday, any argument that we have gotten past its effects is likely to be downright ludicrous. After all, we are dealing with the multi-century denial of any rights to an entire group of millions of human beings. We are dealing with the erasure of language, identity, family, and property, with the mass shackling, raping, and beating of multiple generations of a single ethnic group. Getting past such a rupture in a group’s ability to prosper seems intuitively as if it would take eons. Yet the daughters of the people to whom this happened are still alive.

It should not be surprising, then, that in 2016, black wealth is 1/14 the level of white wealth. Many of those included in the calculus are a single generation away from the systematic extraction of their parents’ wealth (and their parents’ parents, etc.) Any discussion of racial differences in economic and social outcomes that does not mention slavery is not just denying history, it is denying the present, for the children of slaves are still in existence. The question of reparations also becomes a far more urgent one: for the few left who remember ex-slave parents, will we make proper economic amends with them in the time they have remaining?

We forget how recent history truly was. I frequently find inconceivable that, as a young boy, my father shared the planet with Hitler. There are people alive today who saw people who saw Abraham Lincoln. History moves quickly, and it is not nearly as distant as we think. It will be many generations yet before slavery recedes into the seas of time.