December 27, 2010
December 27, 2010
Every day, for the almost two years I worked as a staff librarian at the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay, the pattern was the same: Seconds after they were released from their units, inmates would not walk, they wouldrun — as though catapulted — towards the prison’s library.
Many inmates, especially those in a hurry, arrived with some specific order of business. They would grab a book of case law, or they’d check out a newspaper or magazine and take a seat at the library’s long table. They might disappear into the labyrinth of bookshelves. Many would line up to speak with me. They’d pose legal questions, talk about their families and health concerns, describe their spiritual and educational quests. Time and resources were short, and the needs were urgent. The library was a site of activity, of perpetual motion.
In the public debate about our penal system, prison libraries tend to be a point of controversy. Some critics worry that tax money is misspent on coddling convicted felons. Some go further, and stoke public fear that prison libraries are giving violent convicts access to materials that will incite them. The concept of books in prison has been contentious since at least the 19th century, when prison chronicler Enoch Cobb Wines wrote that some government officials considered prison libraries to be “of doubtful influence.” There is a direct lineage from the 19th-century debate to a Connecticut politician’s recent proposed purge of state prison libraries based on the supposedly nefarious influence of certain “disgusting” novels.
The problem with the public discussion about libraries in prison is that it’s the wrong discussion. For over a century now, the debate has centered on reading — on which books should, or more often should not, be included on the prison library’s shelves; which books are “harmful” or “helpful”; whether reading is a privilege or a right. In 1867, Wines argued that a book like “Robinson Crusoe” — at the time, the only secular novel permitted in prison — served the cause of criminal rehabilitation. Others fervently disagreed.
But the issue of reading is only one dimension of the question, and not necessarily the salient one. The crucial point of a prison library may not be its book catalog: The point is that it is a library.
The library is a shared public space, a hub, where people spend significant portions of their time, often daily. It is a place inmates work and, in some important ways, live. It is more purposeful and educational than a recreational yard, less formal than a classroom. The prison library gives inmates an organic way to connect to the world, to each other, to themselves as citizens. It’s a small democratic institution set deep within a prison, one they can choose to join…
Increasing inequality in the United States has long been attributed to unstoppable market forces… it is the direct result of congressional policies that have consciously — and sometimes inadvertently — skewed the playing field toward the rich.
The U.S. economy appears to be coming apart at the seams. Unemployment remains at nearly ten percent, the highest level in almost 30 years; foreclosures have forced millions of Americans out of their homes; and real incomes have fallen faster and further than at any time since the Great Depression. Many of those laid off fear that the jobs they have lost — the secure, often unionized, industrial jobs that provided wealth, security, and opportunity — will never return. They are probably right.
And yet a curious thing has happened in the midst of all this misery. The wealthiest Americans, among them presumably the very titans of global finance whose misadventures brought about the financial meltdown, got richer. And not just a little bit richer; a lot richer. In 2009, the average income of the top five percent of earners went up, while on average everyone else’s income went down. This was not an anomaly but rather a continuation of a 40-year trend of ballooning incomes at the very top and stagnant incomes in the middle and at the bottom. The share of total income going to the top one percent has increased from roughly eight percent in the 1960s to more than 20 percent today.
This is what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call the “winner-take-all economy.” It is not a picture of a healthy society. Such a level of economic inequality, not seen in the United States since the eve of the Great Depression, bespeaks a political economy in which the financial rewards are increasingly concentrated among a tiny elite and whose risks are borne by an increasingly exposed and unprotected middle class. Income inequality in the United States is higher than in any other advanced industrial democracy and by conventional measures comparable to that in countries such as Ghana, Nicaragua, and Turkmenistan. It breeds political polarization, mistrust, and resentment between the haves and the have-nots and tends to distort the workings of a democratic political system in which money increasingly confers political voice and power.
It is generally presumed that economic forces alone are responsible for this astonishing concentration of wealth. Technological changes, particularly the information revolution, have transformed the economy, making workers more productive and placing a premium on intellectual, rather than manual, labor. Simultaneously, the rise of global markets — itself accelerated by information technology — has hollowed out the once dominant U.S. manufacturing sector and reoriented the U.S. economy toward the service sector. The service economy also rewards the educated, with high-paying professional jobs in finance, health care, and information technology. At the low end, however, jobs in the service economy are concentrated in retail sales and entertainment, where salaries are low, unions are weak, and workers are expendable.
Champions of globalization portray these developments as the natural consequences of market forces, which they believe are not only benevolent (because they increase aggregate wealth through trade and make all kinds of goods cheaper to consume) but also unstoppable. Skeptics of globalization, on the other hand, emphasize the distributional consequences of these trends, which tend to confer tremendous benefits on a highly educated and highly skilled elite while leaving other workers behind. But neither side in this debate has bothered to question Washington’s primary role in creating the growing inequality in the United States.
IT’S THE GOVERNMENT, STUPID
Hacker and Pierson refreshingly break free from the conceit that skyrocketing inequality is a natural consequence of market forces and argue instead that it is the result of public policies that have concentrated and amplified the effects of the economic transformation and directed its gains exclusively toward the wealthy. Since the late 1970s, a number of important policy changes have tilted the economic playing field toward the rich. Congress has cut tax rates on high incomes repeatedly and has relaxed the tax treatment of capital gains and other investment income, resulting in windfall profits for the wealthiest Americans.
Labor policies have made it harder for unions to organize workers and provide a countervailing force to the growing power of business; corporate governance policies have enabled corporations to lavish extravagant pay on their top executives regardless of their companies’ performance; and the deregulation of financial markets has allowed banks and other financial institutions to create ever more Byzantine financial instruments that further enrich wealthy managers and investors while exposing homeowners and pensioners to ruinous risks.
In some cases, these policy changes originated on Capitol Hill: the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts, for example, and the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a repeal that dismantled the firewall between banks and investment companies and allowed the creation of powerful and reckless financial behemoths such as Citigroup, were approved by Congress, generally with bipartisan support. However, other policy shifts occurred gradually and imperceptibly…
December 27, 2010
One is a gadget-maker, the other a search engine—but now they are at odds. It is nothing less than a clash of cultures.
When Apple opened a new store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 2006 it received an unusual complaint. Not the usual New York variety—you’re blocking the view I paid good money for, or you’re gentrifying the neighbourhood I just discovered. No, this new flagship store was criticised by an Islamist website. The steel-and-glass cube, the zealots complained, was meant to invoke the obsidian cube at the Kaaba in Mecca, and insult Islam.
The story was ridiculous—it was one extremist website (albeit a big one), and the clever fanatics running it had only seen the cube with a black tarp over it, while it was under construction. A number of New York Muslims stood up to say that they loved the new store. But it isn’t insane to call Apple’s stores Meccas. Beautiful inside and usually outside too, they are temples to devotees of Apple’s gorgeous products. Unlike most gadget-makers, Apple sells more than sleekly designed toys. It sells a way of life and a way of being. Call it Appleism.
Appleism isn’t quite a religion, but it features an almost godlike leader, Steve Jobs. And he even came back from the dead—fired by the board in 1985, he was rehired after a slump in 1997, and revived Apple’s fortunes. Many fans view Apple with devotion: Tony Curtis, who died in October, was buried with his iPhone, like a pharaoh anxious to update his Facebook status from the afterlife.
With any faith, it is fun to focus on the fanatics, but not very illuminating. On a recent trip to the Fifth Avenue store, not many faces fitted the stereotype of Apple partisans as hip, rich, Western youth. There was a man who looked like a diplomat with the United Arab Emirates’ flag on his lapel. A gaggle of teenage boys from Brazil horsed around in Portuguese. A red-haired youngster put down his Good News Bible to play an online game called “Combat Arms”. A middle-aged couple used the Bed, Bath & Beyond website. Apple’s success has transcended the asymmetrical-jeans-and-black-framed-glasses market. It is now a movement for the masses.
Inside the store, most of the devices could be picked up and played with instantly. This is a smart move by Apple: it must wear out a lot of inventory, but it hooks the would-be buyer, and makes every store a hang-out, like the record shops of olden days. Only one place was inaccessible, thanks to the two-deep crowd that surrounded it: the iPad table.
The iPad, the tablet computer Apple launched in April, has been a phenomenon, selling 7.5m units in six months despite early scepticism, despite a $500 price-tag for the version with no 3G connectivity, despite the fact that it does little that other devices (e-book readers, games consoles, Apple’s own iPhone) didn’t already do. The iPad was Apple’s typically bold bet that it can create a brand new class of thing and people will gobble it up, almost because it was made by Apple. Apple, which stopped calling itself “Apple Computer” in 2007, now has three signature devices that are not Macs—the iPod, iPad and iPhone. It wants to be with you everywhere.
That brings it into conflict with another company that did not set out to make mobile gadgets, but which now wants to follow every step you take. Google began as a smarter way to find things on the internet; it is now a cloud of services that pervades every aspect of our lives. We google a good restaurant, google reviews of it on other websites, find it on Google Maps, google to check if the train is on time, and Gmail our friends to let them know we might be 15 minutes late.
Increasingly, we may do all of these things on a smartphone powered by Google’s Android operating system. Google makes no actual phones itself. But as it has licensed Android to more and more phonemakers, it is, for a company that makes no gadgets, the biggest competitor to the world’s most successful gadget-maker. Google has taken a big bet on making Googleism something we walk around with too.
It wasn’t always so. Only a year or two ago, Apple and Google were so comfortably different that Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, was able to sit on Apple’s board (from 2006 until 2009). “Steve [Jobs] and I are very close personal friends,” Schmidt said this summer. “I believe he’s the best CEO in the world by any measure.” Their companies could have been a match made in heaven: Apple’s gorgeous devices running Google’s miraculous services. But smartphones proved too attractive for Google to leave the field to others. Android is now the bestselling smartphone system, after passing sales of the iPhone late in 2010. Jobs implied that Google had violated a tacit division of turf, pointing out at a conference in June, “we didn’t go into search” and “we’re not going into search”. Radiating self-belief as usual, he told the same audience that he would not be removing Google searchboxes from Apple’s devices, saying “right now, we have the better product”.
The two companies have taken entirely different approaches to the mobile war. Apple’s Apple-made devices allow only Apple-approved applications (apps) on the handset. By contrast, now that it has moved into the phone business, Google gives Android away—it does not sell it—to be installed on dozens of phone models made by a host of phonemakers, including Sony, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC and others. Android’s code is open, and the phonemakers can tinker with it to suit their needs (though Google tries to maintain a basic set of standards, so that an app built for one Android phone will work on another). And anyone who can create an Android app can get it into Google’s Android Market, the equivalent of the App Store. Apple is gorgeous but far more sealed and controlled. Eric Schmidt talked about the difference in July when he visited The Economist in London. “Google has a completely different world model,” he said. “The Apple view is coherently closed. Ours is the inverse model: the web, openness, all the choices, all the voices. And that experiment is running…”