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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #13 (March 29, 2005), page 15.
Have-nots are falling behind the haves
Keeping Up With the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare
By Vijay Prashad
South End Press, 2003
Paperback, 215 pages, $17.00
By Oscar Johnson
With myriads of statistical anecdotes jam-packed in a mere 215 pages, Keeping Up With the Dow Joneses is a weighty analysis of why an increasingly exasperated working class is falling farther behind its corporate-class counterpart.
It is, at its worst, ammunition for an intellectual assault against modern-day imperialism. At its best, it offers idyllic inspiration, conceptual strategies, and concrete examples of grassroots movements, trends, and victories with which to counter the corporate siege.
In three brief but dense treatises on debt, prison, and workfare, Vijay Prashad draws on past, current, and timeless examples to show how these three areas converge as the vanguard of the struggle between the haves and have-nots.
He outlines the plight of the contingent workforce, such as day laborers, temp, and "permatemp" workers whose ranks swelled to as much as 6 million by 1995. Government-policy trends are explored, such as those that in 1999 helped ensure some 44.3 million Americans remained without health insurance — many of whom, the author argues, still tend to be people of color with little viable access to educational opportunities.
On debt, Prashad goes to great length to argue the burden is borne disproportionately by the poor — from a stock market obscenely tilted in favor of the wealthy to the debt-begets-more-debt plight of the nation’s poorest (especially households earning under $10,000 annually). While 40 percent of the nation’s poor borrow just to stay afloat, the author offers by example, the richest 20 percent do so primarily to invest in more wealth.
The list goes on.
Prashad, a Trinity College associate professor of international studies, is every bit the academician in his presentation.
His at times dizzying barrage of statistical quips, dates, and quotes can be as distracting as they are informative. And his tendency to dispense with chronological order to drive home a series of points may either tempt readers to take notes — or give up trying to connect the countless dots that comprise his overarching arguments.
The passion for both social and economic justice that is the book’s narrative, however, will likely keep any interested left-leaning reader going.
Prashad leaves few stones unturned in showing America’s lopsided scales of justice, from highlighting the workings of untaxed incentives paid to the "CEO class" to the rise of the private-prison industry and a racially slanted war on drugs that feeds it (45 percent arrested and half that do time for drug offenses are black men, despite national drug-use data showing a contrary racial balance).
The book discusses what the author considers notable grassroots movements afoot to counter the trends he so laboriously portrays. It looks at the AFL-CIO’s policy shifts in the mid-1990s and such organizations as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, born from a group of active welfare-dependent mothers in 1991.
In highlighting such groups along with the expanding agendas of some labor unions from mere workplace rights to agents of more far-reaching social change, Prashad seeks to rally the troops. His somewhat cerebral battle cry echoes those heard in the 1999 anti-World- Trade-Organization protests of Seattle, Wash. Indeed, the virtues most lauded by Keeping Up With the Dow Joneses are those that prompt grassroots entities to merge and/or fight on more than one front such as employment, housing, childcare, and healthcare.
It’s no coincidence that the book’s final chapter, "Movement," is more or less dedicated to the way in which such groups have — and, according to Prashad, should — bridge traditional differences in an antiglobalist struggle.
Anyone engaging in that struggle will likely find this book edifying, if not inspiring.