Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jtheme update

(Topic: minimum wage)

Junior theme has continued progressing. I have my interview subject, a professor at U of I @ Chicago, who specializes in labor. I really don't want to talk to him yet, though. I also contacted the Chicago Federation of Labor, but they haven't responded, and I contacted Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickel and Dimed), who didn't want to be interviewed but recommended I look at a book called 'Raise the Floor' by Holly Sklar. I don't know if I'll look at Holly Sklar's book, but I found a Bill Moyers interview of her on youtube, and it looks pretty good: [link].

As far as research goes, my main task is to look in to the dialog going on surrounding minimum wage during several time periods. In particular, I need to look at when minimum wage was favored/disliked/neglected and why.

To do this I've spent a long time going through google archives of news and Proquest Historical. A few time periods I've narrowed it down to are:

1) the time leading up to the New Deal,
2) the time leading up to minimum wage's peak in '68--steady increase (Johnson?)
3) the beginnings of the fall of minimum wage (Nixon)
4) factors leading to the time of steady decline (Reagan, Bush H, Clinton, Bush)
5) recent increase in the minimum wage--why higher/not higher ('07 end of Bush presidency)

I guess I covered that in my last blog post more or less, but now it's more clear.

The main issue (area of confusion), I guess, is how I'll organize this in to a paper (how to categorize what I know/find out).

Meh. I'm actually pretty clueless at the moment. Aside from the fact that I feel a bit behind in my research, what it comes down to is that even though I have different eras to look in to, I have no idea how I'm going to organize this in to a paper.

The first issue is finding more good resources. Foner has been great in describing different political philosophies coming in to dominant/govt belief at given times. However, minimum is always mentioned very obliquely. Foner has definitely been the most helpful so far, but finding sources that talk about minimum wage/evolution of american ideas of economic policies/freedom hasn't been that easy. I've found a bunch of primary source documents from different presidential eras, but they're probably not going to end up that interesting (I've read a few and they're disappointing) and they're extremely repetitive: democratic guy wants spending and minimum wage hike, republican doesn't want the free market restricted. Do I lump all of the democrats with similar views together in a paragraph, and vice versa for republicans, or do I have a paragraph on different key presidents in chronological order? Do I have a paragraph devoted to who's-in-power-in-congress, or do I include that in each paragraph? I have no idea where this is going. There are a ton of factors to look at and after looking in to all of them successfully I have no idea how it's going to be organized.

The main issue is just categorizing. How much of my paper is going to focus on the past? Am I going to have paragraphs about different eras, or different ideas/perceptions?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Technological Complexity (MCL)

After reading Ruchi's recent post, I got the urge to write about an example of technology usage gone wrong. Her main question is 'At what point does technology use no longer benefit society? One example of this might be when technology complicates things instead of simplifying them

One example of this is the New Trier language lab. As much as I think technology can help learning, trips to the language lab aren't trips to learn so much as gawk at overly-bureaucratic, expensive technology. The technology makes nothing easier, faster, or more efficient, and does very little that is unique. Further, it doesn't do much in the way of community-building, as the students are all confined to desks for extremely simple things.

Its once-weekly usage often consists of students logging in, then logging in to another system. Then the teacher might lock the screens and broadcast corrections of homework, while students correct it at their cubicles. After that, online textbook activities, discussions with other students via mic/headset, and other things like that take place. Perhaps IM conversations or pictionary (I have experienced each once and they were used terribly).

The problem with this is that almost all could be done in the classroom, face-to-face. The only unique things are the online textbook, which has extra practice, and recording. The head sets are high quality and great for recording, but they largely go unused for that purpose. Most interesting is that, while no student really needs the lab for most of these activities, the lab technology is so complicated it requires tech support staff to be present at all times because the teachers don't understand it. Does that make sense?

Although I hate to make this comparison, as I think it's exaggerated, it reminds me of Huck Finn, where Sawyer/Huck are acting out their escape plan. Clearly, they could just escape right out the door, but they invent this weird scenario where they invent hoops to jump through. That's how I feel in the language lab-- suspended in some artificial scenario. The only reason I need to use the lab technology to begin with is because we're placed in front of it, with no mobility. As a result, we do not use the technology as an extension of ourselves-- our actions are merely an extension of the technology.

Do you think the language lab is beneficial?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Minimum Wage

Instead of focusing on poverty in general, as worried about in my last post, my focus will be shifted to minimum wage--

Why is minimum wage ($7.25) the way it is now?

Since my last post I've found an assortment of articles and almost finished my book Nickeled and Dimed, which reports grimly about the lives of minimum wage workers, many of which work in harsh conditions without the ability to make ends meet without either sharing housing/being homeless, working two jobs, and/or skipping out on many things we may consider necessities. These sources have helped establish background knowledge for when I will soon look more in to the specific causes/historical background of the minimum wage's changes.

A useful graph I found started me off nicely by helping me visualize an overview of minimum wage over time:

When looking at the blue line, the minimum wage has visibly increased from $.38 to $7.25, but as you can see, since the '80s there have been 2 long periods (horizontal blue lines) of time where it had not been adjusted to keep up with inflation. The 'real value' (dollar value adjusted for today's inflation) of the minimum wage appears in red, and over the two longest periods of time when congress didn't update the minimum wage, its real value plummets a lot, reversing 4 or so increases mandated by congress from around 1956 leading up to the peak in '68.

Interestingly, the author of Nickel and Dimed began her investigation of what it's like to live as a member of the working poor in 1998, which on the graph is just after the second extended period of congress inaction begins (which lasts 10 years). She mentions briefly in her book that the rhetoric of that time was all about prosperity-- and yet I doubt minimum age workers shared prosperity with the rest of the country as their already-minimum earnings decreased in value, especially as much as the upper class (which she calls "the owning class" from her perspective as a journalist-working-as-maid for 6+$ an hour). Sadly, the maids she works with, with their limited job skills and perpetually recurring health/housing/food problems, when asked how feel when they clean mansions, say they are inspired that they themselves may, with hard work, enjoy that much property in the future, which near-certainly will not happen (the graph portends their fortunes having an opposite trend).

Anyway, from this, my currently emaciated vegan thesis is:
'The minimum wage is the way it is because we didn't adjust for inflation between 1981-1990 and 1996-2006 and it was probably within many peoples' interest for it to be that way or something.'
needz moar meat

At least from here I know I have to look at how/why the minimum wage was created to begin with in 1938, what was going on in the years leading up to '68 that made the minimum wage so high, and why, from 1981-1990 and 1996-2006, minimum wage wasn't being adjusted for inflation for ~twice as long as usual. What was going on during those times, politically/economically? What legislation was in place? What were peoples' rationales for increasing or not increasing minimum wage? And when minimum wage was adjusted in 1990, 1991, 1995, and 1996, why were the increases relatively small? Why was there a 5-year-long plateau from '91-'95 after such small increases? And what was going on in 2007-- why is our current minimum wage only as high in real value as it was in '59?

Other things I will hopefully end up looking in to:

How many people work minimum wage jobs and remain below the poverty line?

How adequate is the minimum wage to allow people to live well?

Why have several states mandated, instead of the minimum wage, the "living wage," which demands higher pay than the minimum wage? How might the effects of "living wages" demonstrate minimum wage isn't high enough?

How did the minimum wage change in times of increased prosperity or depression?

How are people impacted by changes in the minimum wage-- does it reduce poverty?

How much do minimum wage increases help the economy or, as some might claim (however erroneously/accurately I don't know), harm it? (Opposing Viewpoints has poisoned my brain.)

Why are there periods on the graph where the minimum wage is increased with more frequency than others?

Are we going to adjust it for inflation relatively soon, or will we go further than that and raise its value? (conc?)

What roles have unions played with this, if any?

How do chain/corporate businesses view unionized workers?

Have different interpretations of Christianity/Jesus contributed to income inequality? (criticized in both Capitalism: A Love Story and Nickeled and Dimed)

Some of these sub-topics aren't ones that answering will necessarily affect my thesis, but they'll hopefully allow me to look critically at decisions made by the government. A few are too off-topic, though, and I'll just hope they pop up while I'm looking at other things.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Junior Theme

After trying to pick topics for a while, I think the question I will be focusing my junior theme on is (for now, anyway-- it needs a crazy amount of hacking down):

Why are there ~40 million people in the United States under the poverty line (12% of the population) while US is the world's richest nation?

At first I was deciding between either a topic related to wealth distribution or welfare programs in the United States, but I think focusing on poverty will allow me to look a bit at the history of both along the way.

Because at this point the topic is so broad, the process of looking in to it will eventually allow me to pick a more specific topic related to the economic structure/public policy/wealth in the united states.

--- [edit]

Meh. Perhaps not. I read a bunch of articles and watched one of my sources-- Capitalism, A Love Story-- and while they were interesting and raised a lot of questions for me, they didn't really help me specify my area of focus more.

Another major problem I guess I'm having with formulating a specific why question is that asking a why question implies knowing the state of how things are without making too many generalizations, which takes a lot of time. I don't know that much about the current state of welfare, poverty, the US economy, etc., so I feel like I still might have a ways to go before confidently asking a question and sticking with it. That might be normal to some degree, though. List of tentative other questions:

Why is there an achievement gap in US schools (compared to other industrialized 'first world' nations)?

Why is the US military composed the way it is (ex. who is represented in it most/least and why)?

Why did we do a bailout?

*something about welfare (ex. perception of welfare/the poor, comparing corporate to other forms of welfare)*

We'll see...