Archive for the ‘current events’ Category

burning man’s worldwide, year-round influence

Burning Man 2017 has started its annual stint in the Nevada Black Rock Desert.  If you’re like me, other commitments preclude joining this 60,000-plus gathering of persons.  This live webcast shows some of what what we’re missing:

Nevertheless, as I discuss in this invited op-ed, Burning Man’s 10 principles have spread  worldwide and year-round.  You can find a Burning Man-inspired event or organization in your locality – check out the Burning Man regionals website for local events and the Burners without Borders website for humanitarian projects.

In my op-ed, I also discuss how Burning Man principles help shift people’s conceptions of what’s possible, including questioning everyday society’s practices and enhancing cohesion:

Burning Man doesn’t just manifest in visible settings—it has also expanded an inner, reflective world. In particular, the 10 Principles and Burning Man’s organizing practices—which include decision-making by consensus where people have a say in matters, rather than just deferring to hierarchical authority—enable people to raise questions about the society they wish to support. When confronted, for example, by turnkey camps at the Burning Man event where affluent people pay others to prepare their food, shelter, and entertainment, people can debate the contours and limits of the principle of self-reliance versus inclusion and community. These conversations encourage people to explore the nature of inequality, an issue that often is taken for granted or viewed as inevitable and immutable in conventional society. And people learn to deal with differences, such as asking: What do you do when people have conflicting interpretations of acceptable norms and practices?

For some, Burning Man will always be just a brief, fun party for meeting new and old friends; for others, it offers long-term transformative potential, both at the personal and societal levels. If and when Burning Man ceases to exist, its imprints are likely to endure throughout society, as its inspired offshoots continue to disseminate—and even reconfigure—the 10 Principles and organizing practices to local communities.

Read more of the op-ed here.

You can also see a list and links for my more scholarly writings about Burning Man here, and other scholars and writers’ publications here.


Read the rest of this entry »


Written by katherinechen

August 29, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Posted in culture, current events

Tagged with

the post-racist society vs. donald j. trump

The central tragedy of America is the treatment of non-whites. From Indian wars, to slavery, to segregation, to internment camps, to deportations, to Guantanamo, American society has often betrayed its ideals. But the American story is also one of progress, not stagnation. From time to time, change does happen and it is good.

In my eye, one of the biggest transformations of American society was the de-legitimization of racism in the 1960s. Following a century of eugenics, Jim Crow and all other manner affront to human dignity, the Civil Rights movement managed to create one of the first modern societies where racism began to lose its legitimacy. Not only did African-Americans have their rights returned to them, but the culture around race started to shift as well. For the first time, it was no longer appropriate for public figures to openly disparage American blacks, and many other groups as well.

A while ago I called this new culture “the post-racist society.” Not because I believed race or racism were gone. But rather overt racism was illegitimate. You could be racist, but it had to be expressed in dog whistle politics. It was a submerged belief in the mainstream of American life. My belief in the post-racist society was initially shaken by the rise of Trump. For the first time in decades, a serious contender for the presidency was openly racist. My belief was shaken once again when he won.

But later, as I surveyed the evidence on how Trump rose to power, I realized that the death of post-racist society was greatly exaggerated. For example, Trump won on an electoral college fluke, not because a new nationalist majority propelled him to power. Another key piece evidence. Estimates of the GOP primary vote indicate that 55% of GOP voters preferred someone other than Trump (see the wiki for the basic data). Yes, there is a nationalist and racist strand within the the GOP and Trump essentially dominated that vote. But a causal reading of the GOP primary map shows that Cruz dominated the mountain states and split the Midwest. If you look at the vote tallies in many early states, Trump was winning with vote totals in the low 30% range. Not exactly a resounding victory.

After entering office, there has been no groundswell of nationalism or racism in this country. For example, approval ratings for Trump have been horrid and have sunk to historic lows. Obama’s approval barely dipped below 40% in the Gallup polls but Trump’s is already in the 30% range and has stayed there. Trump is not riding a giant groundswell of nationalism or expressing the outrage of a working class left behind. Rather, he’s an electoral accident propped up by the most recalcitrant elements of the Republican party.

Trump’s limited support in the American polity raises some interesting questions. If only 35% of people approve of Trump (mainly racists and loyal Republicans), then what is everyone else doing? As with many political things, a lot of people have sat out. But we are seeing other parts of the political system slowly respond to Trump.

Perhaps the most insightful example is Trump’s statement that he would ban transgendered individuals from the armed services. The response? The military essentially just ignored him. Just think about that. Another example – after Trump’s statements about the murder of a protester in Charlottesville, conservative GOP senators slowly criticized him and CEO’s started resigning from key committees. Then, of course, there is the disintegration of the GOP consensus in the Senate.

There is the usual resistance from the left that accompanies any Republican administration. I am sure that the events in Charlottesville will continue to mobilize people and surely Trump will offer the left more to be appalled at. His actions will likely sustain the groups behind the Women’s march and the march for science, as well as Obama era groups like Black Lives Matter. And of course, white supremacy groups have seen Trump’s election as a chance to come out of the wood works, which will trigger push back from the left.

One might attribute Republican softness and left resistance to Trumpian incompetence. Perhaps it wouldn’t exist with a more smooth, but equally racist, Republican politician. Maybe. But here’s another hypothesis – people in general aren’t ready to completely ready to ditch the post-Civil Rights cultural agenda. Segregation is not on the table and popular culture has not reverted to a stage where racial slurs are permissible. Black face is not on TV and will not be any time in the near future. We live in the world of Get Out, not Birth of a Nation.

So when white nationalist politicians, like Steve King or Trump, emerge in the GOP, they reflect the will of a sizable, yet limited, constituency. But that group is big enough to win elections in some rural areas, like Arizona or Iowa, and enough to push through a candidate in a split field. At the same time, it doesn’t indicate a slide back to the middle ages.

Does that mean that people should “just relax?” No. Rather, it means that it is possible to defend the post-Civil Rights social order. It is there and it is, haphazardly, pushing back. We need to do what we can to help it out. It’s hard, but it has to be done.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 16, 2017 at 5:10 am

the 80th percentile isn’t the problem

Okay, so I know three days is like a thousand years in internet time. But this Sunday Times op-ed, “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich,” is still bugging me. The title is perfect guilty liberal upper-middle-class New-York-Times-reader clickbait. And sure enough, it was all over my social media feed.

But I think the piece gets things wrong in a particularly pernicious way.

The thrust of the op-ed, and presumably the book it’s promoting, is that upper-middle-class Americans—the top 20% by income—are the real problem, not the top 1%. They are capturing most of the income gains, hoarding opportunities, and they don’t even acknowledge their luck in being there.

A lot of the specific points, particularly about policies that benefit the moderately well-off at the expense of others, are easy to agree with. Exclusionary zoning is bad. 529 plans benefit the well-to-do almost entirely. The mortgage interest deduction is terrible policy.

But the real problem with the U.S. economic system isn’t the self-interested behavior of those in the top 20% of the income distribution. It’s that 1% of the population holds 40% of the wealth, and that GDP increases aren’t translating into higher incomes for most of the population.

The op-ed misdirects our attention away from these factors in multiple ways. First, it paints a misleading picture of this person in the top 20%.

Most obviously, it says that the average income of this group is $200,000, which I admit does sound pretty high. But using the average income to describe this fifth of the population is a problem, given the shape of the income distribution.

The median, which would be the 90th percentile, is $162,000. The 80th percentile is $117,000. (Here’s a quick calculator based on CPS data.) Very healthy, but not $200,000. The anecdotal illustration—the author’s friends who pay $30,000 a year for their kid’s high school tuition—also seems to point to someone with an income on the high end of this range.

Second, while the second decile is doing reasonably well, both its wealth and income are quite proportionate with its actual numbers. This paper is now slightly dated, but it does break out that decile—to show that in 2007 at least, it held 12% of total net worth, and made 14% of total income (see Table 2). You’d have to be pretty damn egalitarian to think that was unreasonably high for the next-to-top 10%.

Finally, yeah, the top 20% has seen more income gains than the rest. But the issue is less that they’re gradually getting better off, than that wages in general aren’t keeping up with either GDP growth or productivity. If you look at pre-tax income of the top 20%, exclusive of the top 1%, it’s increased by 65% since 1979 (see Table 1). Sounds like a lot—until you realize that real GDP per capita increased almost 80% during the same period.

So sure, the top 20% is unquestionably well-off, and indeed rich in global terms. And doubtless people in this group could show a little more self-awareness of their relative good fortune. And it would be nice if the mortgage interest deduction wasn’t the third rail of tax policy.

But the problem isn’t that the top 20% is doing reasonably well. It’s that the rest of the population should be doing that well, too. Ultimately, pointing a finger at the fortunate fifth is a sleight-of-hand that keeps our attention away from where it should be: on a much richer, more rarified group, and the broken system that allows it to capture the bulk of the gains that we as a society produce.




Written by epopp

June 14, 2017 at 12:15 pm

class and college

When awareness about the impact of socio-economic class was not as prevalent among the public, one exercise I did with my undergraduates at elite institutions was to ask them to identify their class background.  Typically, students self-identified as being in the middle class, even when their families’ household incomes/net worth placed them in the upper class.  The NYT recently published this article showing the composition of undergraduate students, unveiling the concentration and dispersion of wealth at various higher education institutions.

As a professor who now teaches at the university listed as #2 in economic mobility (second to Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology ), I can testify to the issues that make an uneven playing field among undergraduates.  Unlike college students whose parents can “pink helicopter” on their behalf and cushion any challenges, undergraduates at CCNY are supporting their parents (if alive) and other family members, bearing the brunt of crushing challenges. (In a minority of cases, students’ parents might help out, say, with occasional childcare – but more likely, students are caring for sick family members or helping with younger siblings.)

To make the rent and cover other expenses in a high COL city, CCNY students work part-time and full-time, sometime with up to two jobs, in the low-wage retail sector.  They do so while juggling a full load of classes because their financial aid will not cover taking fewer classes.  For some students, these demands can create a vicious cycle of having to drop out of classes or earning low grades.

I always tell students to let me know of issues that might impact their academic performance. Over the years (and just this semester alone), students have described these challenges:

  • long commutes of up to 2 hours
  • landlord or housing problems
  • homelessness
  • repeated absences from class due to hospitalizations, illness/accidents, or doctor visits for prolonged health problems
  • self-medicating because of fear about high health care costs for a treatable illness
  • anxiety and depression
  • childcare issues (CCNY recently closed its on-campus childcare facility for students), such as a sick child who cannot attend school or daycare that day
  • difficulties navigating bureaucratic systems, particularly understaffed ones
  • inflexible work schedules

These are the tip of the iceberg, as students don’t always share what is happening in their lives and instead, just disappear from class.

For me, such inequalities were graphically summed up by a thank you card sent by a graduating undergraduate.  The writer penned the heartfelt wish that among other things (i.e., good health), that I always have a “full belly.”  Reflecting this concern about access to food, with the help of NYPIRG, CCNY now has a food pantry available to students.

Written by katherinechen

March 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

global resistance in the neoliberal university

Those of you who are interested in fending off growing neoliberalism in the university might be interested in the following international  line-up at CUNY’s union, PSC.
You can watch a livestream of the conference via fb starting tonight, Fri., March 3, 6-9pm and Sat., March 4, 9:30am-6pm EST:
…an international conference on Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University organized by the union will be held today and tomorrow, 3/3rd-4th at the PSC, 61 Broadway.  
Scholars, activists and students from Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Greece, India and the US will lead discussions on perspectives, strategies and tactics of resisting the neoliberal offensive in general, and in the context of the university in particular.
You can visit this site for a link to the conference program:
Due to space constraints, conference registration is now closed. But we’re thrilled by the tremendous interest in the event! You can watch a livestream of the conference here:  If you follow us on our Facebook page, you will receive a notification reminding you to watch.  
We look forward to seeing some of you tonight and to discussing the conference with many of you in the near future. 



Written by katherinechen

March 3, 2017 at 11:29 pm

supreme court game theory

Right now, Senate Democrats have a choice, they can vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch or reject. This choice is complex:

  • How desirable is this individual nominee?
  • How desirable is it to filibuster this individual nominee, even if he is desirable?
  • How desirable is it to punish Republicans for not holding a vote on Merrick Garland?

I think these issues are subtle and interdependent. For example, it is unclear whether Trump would nominate another Scalia type jurist, who is very conservative but does show some degree of independence. Thus, this may be “as good as it gets.”

However, voting in favor of Gorsuch, or simply not filibustering, raises a number of issues for Democrats. First, it essentially confirms a new norm in the Senate. If the President and Senate are from different parties, the Senate can deny the President the power to appoint any Supreme Court justices. This is a real shift. Technically, the power granted by the Constitution is “advise and consent,” not complete denial. Second, allowing the Gorsuch nomination to proceed without a major fight will probably inflame the base. The Democratic base could reasonably ask why Republicans are happy to filibuster and Democrats not so much.

My prediction is that Senate Democrats will allow Gorsuch to be nominated without much fuss because Democratic primary voters won’t punish them. The Democratic base seems to be very ineffective when it comes to punishing deviant behavior. Thus, the marginal Senate Democrat will probably focus more on general election voters in swing states.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 13, 2017 at 12:01 am

conspiracy theory, donald trump, and birtherism: a new article by joe digrazia


Joe DiGrazia, a recent IU PhD and post-doc at Dartmouth, has a really great article in Socious, the ASA’s new online open access journal. The article, The Social Determinants of Conspiratorial Ideation, investigates the rise in conspiratorial thinking on the Internet. He looks at state level Google searches for Obama birtherism and then compares to non political types of conspiracy theory, like Illuminati.

The findings? Not surprisingly, people search for conspiracy related terms in places with a great deal of social change, such as unemployment, changes in government, and demographic shift. This is especially important research given that Donald Trump first rose to political prominence as a birther. This research is indispensable for anyone trying to understand the forces that are shaping American politics today.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 8, 2017 at 12:22 am