Brooks and Herbert

Bobo is telling us all about “The Sidney Awards, Part II,” and gives us the second batch of winners of the 2010 Sidney Awards.  He says it seems as though turbulent times produce good essays.  Mr. Herbert, in “The Data and the Reality,” says despite optimistic economic forecasts, a national survey highlights the deep and continuing pain experienced by millions of jobless Americans.  Here’s Bobo:

The Sidney Awards go to some of the best magazine essays of the year. The one-man jury is biased against political essays, since politics already gets so much coverage. But the jury is biased in favor of pieces that illuminate the ideas and conditions undergirding political events.

For example, there’s been a lot of talk this year about trying to reduce corruption in Afghanistan, Iraq and across the Middle East. But in a piece in The American Interest called “Understanding Corruption,” Lawrence Rosen asks: What does corruption mean?

For Westerners, it means one set of things: bribery and nepotism, etc. But when Rosen asks people in the Middle East what corruption is, he gets variations on an entirely different meaning: “Corruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence.”

Our view of corruption makes sense in a nation of laws and impersonal institutions. But, Rosen explains, “Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty.” So to not give a job to a cousin is corrupt; to not do deals with tribesmen is corrupt. Reducing corruption in Afghanistan is not a question of replacing President Hamid Karzai with a more honest man. It’s a deeper process.

In earlier ages, people consulted oracles. We consult studies. We rely on scientific findings to guide health care decisions, policy making and much else. But in an essay called “The Truth Wears Off” in The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer reports on something strange.

He describes a class of antipsychotic drugs, whose effectiveness was demonstrated by several large clinical trials. But in a subsequent batch of studies, the therapeutic power of the drugs appeared to wane precipitously.

This is not an isolated case. “But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain,” Lehrer writes. “It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.”

The world is fluid. Bias and randomness can creep in from all directions. For example, between 1966 and 1995 there were 47 acupuncture studies conducted in Japan, Taiwan and China, and they all found it to be an effective therapy. There were 94 studies in the U.S., Sweden and Britain, and only 56 percent showed benefits. The lesson is not to throw out studies, but to never underestimate the complexity of the world around.

There’s been a lot written about Detroit, but Charlie LeDuff’s essay “Who Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones” in Mother Jones packs a special power. It starts with a killing of a little girl in a police raid, then pulls back to the idiotic murder of a teenage boy that precipitated the raid — that murder victim may have smirked at his killer for riding a moped.

Then LeDuff touches on the decay all around — a city in which 80 percent of the eighth graders are unable to do basic math, the crime lab was closed because of ineptitude, 500 fires are set every month and 50 percent of the drivers are operating without a license.

LeDuff, a former reporter for The Times, travels from broad context to the specific details — from the collapse of the industrial economy to the fact that a local minister was left with the girl’s $4,000 funeral costs, claiming the girl’s father ran off with the donations.

In an essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Demographic Future,” Nicholas Eberstadt describes the coming global manpower decline. Over the next two decades, for example, there will be a 30 percent decline in the number of Chinese between the ages of 15 and 29 — 100 million fewer workers.

Tyler Cowen wrote a superb, counterintuitive piece on income inequality for The American Interest called “The Inequality That Matters.” It’s filled with interesting observations. For example, the inequality that really bites is local — the guy down the street who can spend three bucks more for a case of beer, not Bill Gates’s billions across the country.

But his main insight is this. Smart people, especially in the financial sector, now have tremendous incentives to take great risks. If the risks fail, they still have millions in the bank. If the risks pay off, they get enormously rich. The result is a society with more inequality and more financial instability. It’s not clear we know how to address this phenomenon.

Finally, two historical essays deserve mention. Adam Gopnick wrote a fresh piece on Winston Churchill for The New Yorker called “Finest Hours.” Anne Applebaum wrote a chilling essay on central Europe in the 20th century called “The Worst of the Madness” in The New York Review of Books. (The online version of this column has links to the essays.)

I’ve been doing these awards for several years now. This was the richest year, with the best essays.

Now here’s Mr. Herbert:

I keep hearing from the data zealots that holiday sales were impressive and the outlook for the economy in 2011 is not bad.

Maybe they’ve stumbled onto something in their windowless rooms. Maybe the economy really is gathering steam. But in the rough and tumble of the real world, where families have to feed themselves and pay their bills, there are an awful lot of Americans being left behind.

A continuing national survey of workers who lost their jobs during the Great Recession, conducted by two professors at Rutgers University, offers anything but a rosy view of the economic prospects for ordinary Americans. It paints, instead, a portrait filled with gloom.

More than 15 million Americans are officially classified as jobless. The professors, at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, have been following their representative sample of workers since the summer of 2009. The report on their latest survey, just out this month, is titled: “The Shattered American Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope, and Faith in Their Futures.”

Over the 15 months that the surveys have been conducted, just one-quarter of the workers have found full-time jobs, nearly all of them for less pay and with fewer or no benefits. “For those who remain unemployed,” the report says, “the cupboard has long been bare.”

These were not the folks being coldly and precisely monitored, classified and quantified as they made their way to the malls to kick-start the economy. These were among the many millions of Americans who spent the holidays hurting.

As the report states: “The recession has been a cataclysm that will have an enduring effect. It is hard to overstate the dire shape of the unemployed.”

Nearly two-thirds of the unemployed workers who were surveyed have been out of work for a year or more. More than a third have been jobless for two years. With their savings exhausted, many have borrowed money from relatives or friends, sold possessions to make ends meet and decided against medical examinations or treatments they previously would have considered essential.

Older workers who are jobless are caught in a particularly precarious state of affairs. As the report put it:

“We are witnessing the birth of a new class — the involuntarily retired. Many of those over age 50 believe they will not work again at a full-time ‘real’ job commensurate with their education and training. More than one-quarter say they expect to retire earlier than they want, which has long-term consequences for themselves and society. Many will file for Social Security as soon as they are eligible, despite the fact that they would receive greater benefits if they were able to delay retiring for a few years.”

There is a fundamental disconnect between economic indicators pointing in a positive direction and the experience of millions of American families fighting desperately to fend off destitution. Some three out of every four Americans have been personally touched by the recession — either they’ve lost a job or a relative or close friend has. And the outlook, despite the spin being put on the latest data, is not promising.

No one is forecasting a substantial reduction in unemployment rates next year. And, as Motoko Rich reported in The Times this month, temporary workers accounted for 80 percent of the 50,000 jobs added by private sector employers in November.

Carl Van Horn, the director of the Heldrich Center and one of the two professors (the other is Cliff Zukin) conducting the survey, said he was struck by how pessimistic some of the respondents have become — not just about their own situation but about the nation’s future. The survey found that workers in general are increasingly accepting the notion that the effects of the recession will be permanent, that they are the result of fundamental changes in the national economy.

“They’re losing the idea that if you are determined and work hard, you can get ahead,” said Dr. Van Horn. “They’re losing that sense of optimism. They don’t think that they or their children are going to fare particularly well.”

The fact that so many Americans are out of work, or working at jobs that don’t pay well, undermines the prospects for a robust recovery. Jobless people don’t buy a lot of flat-screen TVs. What we’re really seeing is an erosion of standards of living for an enormous portion of the population, including a substantial segment of the once solid middle class.

Not only is this not being addressed, but the self-serving, rightward lurch in Washington is all but guaranteed to make matters worse for working people. The zealots reading the economic tea leaves see brighter days ahead. They can afford to be sanguine. They’re working.

 

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