Review: The Smear

I’ve read a bunch of books since my last review, but none of them lent themselves to a review on this website. This afternoon, I finished reading Sharyl Attkisson’s The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote. (Yes, long title, long book. But one worth reading.) Anyone who is concerned with the declining state of American media – which should, presumably, be everyone – should read this book for a behind-the-scenes account of transactional journalism, super PACs, and the smear.


Attkisson is an Emmy award-winning journalist, frustrated with how the media has become a unit of propaganda. One day, a couple of congressional staffers approached  her with dirt on their opponent. Attkisson was a disgusted:

I let the thought swirl around in my head. These men are being paid tax dollars to supposedly serve the public interest working for a member of Congress. Instead, they are using time on the clock to smear political enemies.

But this is the status quo in contemporary Washington, D.C.

Working with friendly journalists isn’t the only tactic used by those wanting to discredit an enemy.  The Internet is also a powerful propaganda tool. Attkisson describes a tactic known as “astroturfing,” which allows PR firms, nonprofits, and anyone else to sway public opinion anonymously online. Entities can create hundreds of anonymous online profiles to make it appear that there is grassroots support when none truly exists.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Attkisson documents how Democrats attempted an astroturfing campaign against “fake news.” At the time, Media Matters and President Obama were proclaiming citizens were deeply concerned about the onslaught of fake news, and that something must be done about it. Both Obama and Media Matters trainees called for websites, including Google and Facebook, to curate news. The problems? The American public is not calling out for the First Amendment to be restricted; surveys do not support that fake news is one of the biggest concerns of the American electorate. Media matters and Obama are overselling the threat of fake media, as perceived by Americans at large. The second concern is that, to solve the “threat” of fake media, Obama and Media Matters are calling upon Google, Facebook, and other companies to curate news. Such a “solution” leads to serious concerns about censorship and protection of the First Amendment. (Although Democrats’ plans fizzled when Trump co-opted the term “fake media,” it is still deeply worrisome that Google and Facebook may curate news to the advantage of a singular ideology.)

My biggest critique of this book is that it focuses almost exclusively on the 2016 election. I realize Attkisson is a political reporter, but it would be interesting to see how the smear affects those outside of politics, if at all.Anyway, if you are a propagandist in the making, are a journalist, or have an interest in learning about how the powerful are trying to manipulate you, check out The Smear.

Review: Devil’s Bargain

Not long ago, I quickly finished Joshua Green‘s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. I actually read it after Bannon left the White House; I never really understood the controversy over his entry or exit in the Trump Administration, and bought the book in order to provide insight. To an extent, the book was helpful, but only insofar as providing the typical left-of-center perspective dished out via the mainstream media.


Green’s initial description of Bannon is “as a colorful version of a recognizable Washington character type: the political grifter seeking to profit from the latest trend.” He is also repeatedly portrayed as slovenly, apparently having only recently decided to “swap[] the cargo shorts for cargo pants and toss[] a blazer over his many layers of shirting.” His motto? “Honey badger don’t give a shit.”

Much more interesting than Green’s perspectives on Bannon are those regarding Trump. Reportedly, Trump is incredibly superstitious, going so far as to throw salt over his shoulder during meals. Apparently Corey Lewandowski and Trump had a falling out as Lewandowski believed that, because Trump treated him as a son, he could act like one. Not the case. Green also writes that Governor Chris Christie also irked Trump, repeatedly attempting to ingratiate himself with the family and refusing to respect Trump’s personal space.

Gossip about individual quirks aside (and Green does make a point of noting that his writing is extensively sourced), the book speculates that Trump became serious about running for president after he was humiliated at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner by President Obama and Seth Meyers. He did run, and when Paul Manafort’s efforts to mold Trump into a more conventional candidate began tanking the campaign, the Mercer family encouraged Trump to bring Bannon on board.

The book discusses Bannon’s background, both personally and professionally, but never really explains why he is so incredibly disliked, aside from his efforts to have the Clintons discredited. Although Green appears to dislike populism, in general, he never offers policy arguments to illustrate why Bannon’s platforms are wrong or inappropriate. While I did learn gossipy tidbits mentioned above, Devil’s Bargain falls flat when it comes to anything more than that.

Review: An American Sickness

You know by now that I love reading and sharing information that I learn from a good book. Elisabeth Rosenthal‘s An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back is truly one of the most interesting books I’ve read all year! Especially now, as Senators discuss repealing and/or amending the Affordable Care Act, read this book!!!


Rosenthal, a former journalist and physician, begins by thoroughly describing how the medical-industrial complex takes advantage of patients and legal loopholes. She devotes a chapter each to the ills of insurers, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, ancillary service providers, billing and coding contractors, medical researchers, conglomerations, and patient complacency. The facts presented are fascinating: for example, “[t]he average hospital cost per day in the United States was $4,300 in 2013,” more than triple “the cost in Australia and about ten times the cost in Spain”!

The concept that irked me the most is “venture philanthropy.” Of it, Rosenthal writes:

The problem is that many charitable foundations no longer see themselves as funders of research for knowledge propelled by donor dollars to cure a disease, but instead as inventors in new treatments.

When insulin was developed in the 1920s, researchers did not stand by patent protection to reap income, but instead shared their knowledge with the community. When the March of Dimes helped fund vaccination research, it did not bill children or their families for inoculation. Now, medical charities are investing money in research. Because any successful discovery will likely result in royalties to the charity shareholder, the charity has no financial incentive to advocate for the cost of that discovery to be accessible to those served by the charity. Talk about conflict of interest!

Rosenthal devotes the second portion of the book to offering both systemic reform, as well as individualized, methods to save money on medical treatment. Again, this section was disturbing, given that neither Republicans nor Democrats are proposing many of the reforms proposed by Rosenthal. Although concepts like tort reform have been initiated in states like Indiana, contemporary federal reform efforts appear completely off the mark.

Last, but most certainly not least, the end of the book contains multiple appendices patients can use to arm themselves in price negotiation. Although options for comparison shopping for medical procedures are limited, Rosenthal provides links to those options that are available. She also includes template letters patients can use when objecting to healthcare charges.

This book contains good stuff, all around. I’ve been bugging my coworkers about it all week long, eager to share stories about how we are all getting ripped off. This book, however, is not a ripoff, but a real gem for the bookshelf!

Review: Rising Star

Earlier this week I finally finished David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. I say finally for a few reasons. The book is so long – my e-book, in regular typeface, was about 2,000 pages – and so detailed that it reminded me of War and Peace. In fact, the first chapter opens with 1970s Chicago, well before Obama ever set foot there. And it contains so many different characters that it’s difficult to keep everyone straight. Nonetheless, Garrow effectively shows the inner war and peace Obama encountered on his path to the presidency.


Those who read Obama’s Dreams From My Father are familiar with the gist of Obama’s background. His mother is a white American and his father was a black Kenyan.  Neither parent was physically present for the majority of Obama’s childhood, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents after living with his mother and stepfather for several years in Indonesia. Obama describes himself, in his autobiography, as someone searching for identity and place.

Garrow unravels the vignettes written by Obama, and digs much deeper into Obama’s past.  While many of Obama’s Hawaiian friends from childhood remembered him as a smart and laid-back individual, Obama’s book doesn’t necessarily portray the same, but instead describes racial conflict. Garrow, instead, posits that Obama actually became more aware of racial conflict and identity while at Occidental College.  It was then that Obama ceased allowing friends to call him “Barry,” and became “Barack.” It was then that he chose his identity as black (rather than someone of multiple ethnicities.)

Another fascinating portion of the book follows Obama’s relationship with Sheila Jager. Garrow suggests that Obama ultimately broke up with Jager because Obama believed that he could not successfully run for higher political office unless he developed ties in the African-American community by marrying a woman from the same. Michelle Robinson filled that role perfectly. (And Michelle Obama did all that she could to keep her husband from running for office, believing politics was beneath his talents.)

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about President Obama, Chicago politics, or campaigning. While the book focuses on both the personal and the political, the personal accounts, gleaned through interviews Obama’s friends and relations, were the most interesting. They provide insight into the motivations of a man that led America for eight years.

Review: The Death of Expertise

Yesterday I finished Tom Nichols’ quick read, The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell:

Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.

Immediately coming to mind after reading that excerpt was images of Sean Hannity and other commentators  railing against “snowflakes,” a pejorative term for millennials that demand “safe spaces” and recognition of their value. In fact, Nichols devotes an entire chapter to higher education, noting that students are increasingly rude to professors, increasingly less deferential now that education has become a business and the customer is always right – even when the customer is clearly, factually, and undeniably incorrect. Most institutions of higher learning now give out As and Bs to 80% of the students in any given class.

Although conservatives are usually quick to point out the disturbing consequences of this failure of higher education, an area dominated by liberal thinkers, Nichols ideologically balanced in his arguments against anti-intellectualism. He blames talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh for only featuring single viewpoints, and even screening callers to ensure that there will be no on-air debating. Nichols also targets President Trump, who has promoted misconceptions about vaccination and President Obama’s birth place.

Regardless of who is to blame for the tension between intellectual elites and the larger populace, the mutual contempt could spell disaster for the American republic, which relies on an informed citizenry.  Although Nichols fears that an economic collapse or natural disaster may be necessary to bring these warring groups together, he does provide a roadmap for going forward. Nichols implores the general citizenry to take the time to consider expert opinions, for example, and directs experts not to withdraw into their proverbial ivory towers.

Given that every American bears responsibility to the republic, this book is worth a read.


Review: A Really Good Day

Yesterday I finished Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. Waldman, a former public defender, acquires a bottle of diluted LSD and studies its effect on her life. More rigorously, she provides daily updates in regard to influences – or a suspected influences – upon her mood, relationships, irritability, sleeplessness, productivity, and pain.


Waldman’s research is brave, in that LSD was categorized as a Schedule I drug by Congress and President Nixon in 1970. The Controlled Substances Act clamped down on legal access to the drug. It wasn’t until 1994 that the FDA gave approval for human testing regarding psychedelic drugs again. Yet, many are still reluctant to experiment with LSD, even if authorized to do so by the federal government and internal review boards.

The War on Drugs’ propaganda regarding LSD and other psychedelics is noted throughout the book, as is unfortunate consequences. Waldman considers, for example, that MDMA was regularly used by psychiatrists in the 1990s with very positive results. In one experiment, 83% of research subjects that obtained MDMA and talk therapy to resolve PTSD were cured after two sessions. The cure rate for those receiving a placebo? Only 25%. Importantly, the effects lasted long after MDMA was flushed from the subjects’ systems. Presumably, MDMA could be helpful to other PTSD sufferers, including veterans.

Certainly, Waldman notes that drugs are not without negatives. Although LSD has a remarkably low toxicity level, it occasionally led to sleeplessness and agitation. MDMA can indirectly lead to death, if people fail to take proper precautions. Nevertheless, Waldman astutely recognizes that even SSRIs (prescribed to approximately 10% of those in the United States) are not without risks. But not for the law, why not experiment in order to learn more about whether certain Schedule I drugs may offer benefits that outweigh the risks – and the alternatives?

Aside from being uncomfortable about appearing to endorse Waldman’s illegal activity, I found the book fascinating, and even encouraging. No, I would not personally take illicit drugs, nor would I advise anyone to do so. Yet, I would ask that the federal government and researchers be more forthcoming regarding the positives of certain chemical substances and determine whether they could be used for the benefit of those who suffer.


EEOC’s New Affirmative Action Rule

Today the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published its final rule on Affirmative Action for Individuals with Disabilities in Federal Employment. It becomes effective 60 days from publication, and its provisions are applicable beginning January 3, 2018. Indeed, federal employees with disabilities – and federal job seekers with disabilities – have some great things to look forward to!

Most importantly, the rule adds two significant requirements to the administration of the Rehabilitation Act. First, those federal employees with targeted disabilities requiring personal assistance (PA) services for work and work-related travel can receive them from their employing agency as a reasonable accommodation. This is huge! People with significant mobility disabilities may now be able to use the restroom at work, eat lunch, and have someone put their coat on before they leave for the day. Importantly, the EEOC expects federal agencies to even provide PA services outside of the agency’s infrastructure for those individuals telecommuting.

I would feel a bit strange about my employer being involved in my toileting routine. Fortunately, the EEOC specifically notes that when hiring a PA service provider, the agency shall “give primary consideration to the individual’s preferences to the extent permitted by law.” This means, for example, that if a female employee with a targeted disability only feels comfortable with the assistance of another female, the agency must consider this request. I am grateful to those submitting comments to the EEOC regarding the intimacy of the relationship between a PA service provider and the recipient of those services.

Second, the EEOC is requiring federal agencies to take specifically-designated steps toward hiring more people with disabilities, and particularly those with severe disabilities. (It should be noted that the EEOC specifically refrained from using the word “severe,” after a commentor indicated the lack of political correctness. You’ll get no political correctness from this crip; consider my succinctness a reasonable accommodation for exhausted vocal muscles.) Specifically, the final rule mandates that the following steps be taken to increase the hiring advancement of those with disabilities:

  • Programs and resources should be used to identify applicants with disabilities;
  • Contracting with disability organizations, including vocational rehabilitation programs, centers for independent living, and employment networks;
  • Ensured availability of sufficient personnel to answer disability-related questions;
  • Creating a plan of action to ensure that disable employees have opportunities for advancement, including information about training opportunities and/or a mentoring program;
  • Inclusion of disability within the agency’s anti-harassment policy and training materials;
  • Adoption of easy-to-understand and easily-available reasonable accommodation policies and rights to accessible technology;
  • Guarantee that the agency evaluate its entire budget when determining whether a reasonable accommodation would constitute an undue hardship; and
  • Provide applicants or employees with a written notice (in an accessible format) of why a reasonable accommodation was denied, along with instructions on how to file a discrimination complaint and appeal.

How’s that for being a model employer?! Any guesses on when we can expect the private sector to get on board?

Review: Reflections on the Revolution in Europe

Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West isn’t a new book, but it’s one that I’m glad I picked up. In fact, the 2010 tome sheds important light on why Britons Brexited and Donald Trump is the United States’ next president.


Caldwell suggests that when European nations began guest worker programs in the post-World War II era, they situated themselves, unknowingly, to become “a continent of migrants.” At the time of its writing, the book claims that of 375 million residents of Western Europe, approximately 40 million non-natives are domiciled in the region. Many of these migrants come from Islamic cultures. This is notable, in that “the Islamic and the Christian worlds have opposed one another, violently at times,” for more than a millennium. The book considers whether Europeans and Islamic immigrants can live together peacefully in the years to come, as well as contemporary socio-political circumstances.

According to Caldwell, less than one-fifth of Europeans believe immigration has had positive results for their nations. Before the reader write Caldwell and his fellow Europeans off as racist, xenophobic, or Islamophobic, it is enlightening to objectively consider immigration’s net effects. Caldwell’s book offers that objective analysis.

Indeed, civil liberties have been restricted for all Europeans in the wake of mass immigration. As authorities have placed radical mosques under surveillance, governing bodies have rolled back privacy rights for all Europeans so as not to viewed as singling out those of a particular religion. (Again, no one wants to be considered a “hater” or “Islamophobe.”) To keep from being overwhelmed by the outcome of family reunification programs (noting that practitioners of the Islamic faith traditionally have far, far higher birth rates than those of generally-secular Europeans), Denmark made it increasingly difficult to gain Danish citizenship, making it tough for even for a native Dane to get citizenship for a foreign spouse.

Although some – Caldwell cites European elites, and I’d cite Hillary Clinton in her latest attempt at becoming president – argue that immigrants bring benefits, particularly in economic form, to their home countries, this has been questionable – at least in Europe’s case. Caldwell writes: “Instead of using their benefits to pay for say, food, [immigrants] may use them to pay for, say, Islam. Two-thirds of French imams are on welfare.” Eventually, Europeans determined that immigrants were threatening the sustainability of their welfare economies.

The result was that elites began couching immigration in terms of moral imperatives. We hear something similar in the United States when people claim we have a moral obligation to admit Syrian refugees. The trouble with arguing that the admission of refugees is a moral imperative means that one cannot pick and choose among those asylum-seekers with the best credentials; one is morally obligated to accept all in need, or at least those in the greatest need (i.e., those worst off). It also means that many of the refugees admitted into Western countries are Islamic. “For Europe, the biggest nearby humanitarian catastrophes and the bloodiest nearby wars were either in the Muslim world (Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Eastern Turkey) or on its borders (the former Yugoslavia).” Further, these people are moving to their new land not to do, but to be. This dynamic has created a situation in which immigrants are coming in great numbers – in entire communities. Rather than assimilation, these many communities coexist within their own subculture.

The next two sections of the book – which I won’t spoil for you here – address Islamic and Western culture. Caldwell tackles difficult questions that make Westerners squeamish, including: Is Islam a peaceful religion? Is tolerance beneficial for its practitioners? Is Western culture in decline? Is Islam more sustainable and attractive than Western culture? I found Caldwell’s analysis truly helpful and balanced. Given that “the clash of cultures” is likely to be a hot topic in 2017, I highly recommend this book!

Review: Evicted

Yes, another housing book. This time, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Not only did the book come recommended by one of my former law professors, but also, strangely, a former love interest. But I digress…

Desmond, a Harvard professor and winner of a MacArthur Genius grant, demonstrates the toll eviction takes on families by following several evicted Milwaukee residents. His subjects come from various backgrounds and demographic categories – both black and white, gay and straight, disabled and able-bodied. Their common features? Poverty and eviction.

Interestingly, and part of what makes the book so unique, is that Desmond is honest with his narrative. Clearly, Desmond has an agenda, as outlined in the book’s epilogue.  While one may believe someone pushing a universal housing voucher program and expanded public legal aid programming would want the victims of eviction to sound sympathetic, Desmond exposes that one renter spent all of her food stamps on lobster tails and king crab, on which she gorged herself one night. Another renter left her children unattended, and the youngest died in a fire

Although I cannot say that I liked any of the people featured in Desmond’s book, I could relate to them. Desmond does a good job of showing that the featured renters are simply people,  with flaws and gifts that could be shared if circumstances permitted. In the same vein, Desmond also shares stories of two landlords, neither horrible villains nor sacrificing heroes.

Indeed, it is these complex relationships between tenant and landlord that cause the book to stand out. Certainly, Desmond gives the reader well-researched statistics and history regarding eviction in American cities, both past and present, but these statistics can be gleaned easily from the many housing papers and books available.What readers did not previously have access to was a candid glimpse into how eviction comes to be, how it affects both landlords and tenants, and its effects on the greater community.

Because I did enjoy the book, I would be remiss if I did not point out my disappointment that, on multiple occasions, Desmond refers to people with disabilities as “invalids.” For all the care he takes in representing other minorities fairly, using a word like invalid is seriously bizarre. Perhaps the Milwaukee winter froze the thesaurus inside his head???

Review: The Value of Homelessness

Craig Willse’s The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States examines how and why the government and nonprofit sectors rely upon the homeless population. Published in 2015 by University of Minnesota Press, the book is clearly designed for an audience of sociologists and other academics (i.e., not attorneys). Nevertheless, those willing to give the required attention to Willse’s sometimes-effusive explanations of Foucauldian and Marxist philosophies will gain new perspective on the homeless “industry.”

The book begins with an introduction describing Willse’s interest in housing. After graduating from college and having no career goals in the late 1990s, Willse moved to Los Angeles. He took a variety of low-skilled jobs, and eventually found work as a residential supervisor at a transitional living program for gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender youth. Though he quickly received multiple promotions, he began to question whether the home’s residents lacked housing due to their sexual identities, a question that challenged “the official agency narrative.”[1]

Instead, Willse came to understand housing and homelessness as a manifestation of societal failure:

The systematic nature of housing insecurity is masked by the objectifying work of the term “the homeless.” When we speak of “the homeless,” we mobilize a pathological category that directs attention to an individual, as if living without housing is a personal experience rather than a social phenomenon. Instead, we might talk in terms of “housing deprivation.” This phrase expresses that living without housing is systemically produced and must be understood as the active taking away of shelter, as the social making of house-less lives.[2]

This understanding was based his observations that residents often came from particular socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Sexual identity, alone, was too simple of an explanation for housing insecurity. His employer failed to recognize the complexity of the situation, and instead focused solely on its social agenda. This ideological schism eventually led Willse to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology, and he is currently a Cultural Studies assistant professor at George Mason University, where he focuses his research on neoliberalism, biopolitics, urbanism, and activism.

Yet, the housing provider’s response cannot be deemed unexpected nor as a deviation from what may be considered standard thinking in regard to homelessness in the United States. Willse writes that “as a system of insecurity and deprivation, housing manages our lives in such a way as to disaggregate our common experiences, individualize our challenges, and pit us in competitive, hostile fights with one another….”[3] This siloing effect was demonstrated by Willse’s former employer, which served only those homeless individuals with a particular sexual orientation or identity.

More broadly, housing insecurity also separates the homeless from the housed. The separation is explicitly visible; some people live in structures and others live on the streets. More insidious aspects of the separation between those with homes and those without can also be extracted when comparing respective health outcomes of each population. Indeed, lack of housing can even result in death. In addition to “bumbashing” and existing in closer proximity to other sources of physical violence, HIV infection among New York City’s shelter population is 16 times the rate infection among the overall population.[4]

Willse attributes these social conditions to the function of biopower, as exercised through the neoliberal ideology of the United States. Biopower was defined by Michael Foucault as “what brought life and its mechanisms into the explicit realm of calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life.”[5] Such life is politicized through two poles: anatomopolitics, which refers to the individual as he relates within space, and biopolitics, which refers to population-based regulation.[6] These poles are applied through technological tools, designed to expand life.

Importantly, biopower operates on the principle that “not all life is deemed worthy of investment. Rather, some life, or some parts of a population, is considered a drain on the life of the overall population.”[7] Therefore, a political regime will employ its technology to manage the “unworthy” forms of life.[8] This process was deemed “state racism” by Foucault, and can be viewed as “internal racism of permanent purification.”[9]

Expounding upon the work of other social theorists, Willse explains that state racism has been incorporated into United States property law since colonial times. Early in the nation’s history, black people were treated as property, and white people were property-owners. This privilege catapulted white people forward, solidifying their political power which, in turn, allowed them to amass increasingly more capital. Those without these advantages – people who are black, Hispanic, and Native American – became essentially “surplus,” a “permanent redundancy.”[10] Without a metaphorical place in society, many also were without a literal place to call home.

Although the codification of white privilege begets state racism, Willse argues, the state is not alone in subjugating the homeless.

A diverse range of non-state and quasi-private institutions, including nonprofit homeless social service agencies, do the work of state racism, making the cuts of investment and abandonment. But considering the evolution of welfare policy and administration will demonstrate how, insofar as the state takes on projects of distribution related to economic growth, state offices and policies have been key mechanisms for instantiating technologies of state racism across the social.[11]

The last three chapters of the book detail this neoliberal paradigm, in which welfare “programs serve the economy directly as part of the economy….”[12]

Whereas prior governance models lacked the means to support “surplus” individuals and would forsake them, the neoliberal paradigm wields “technologies [to] reconfigure biopolitical governance… Illness and waste, and populations organized as such, become fertile sites for economic investment, as they multiply opportunities for developing and extending governance mechanisms, making the economic life of governance possible.”[13] In the United States, homelessness continues to exist, despite a plethora of resources that could be applied to rectify the problem. It is in the interest of government and nonprofits that populations like “the homeless” exist, so the status quo is maintained and managed rather upended.

Willse describes that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did not significantly attempt to manage homelessness until the Stewart B. McKinney Assistance Act was passed 1987.[14] The Act established an Interagency Council on Homelessness, as well as provided funding for new homelessness programs. In 2009, the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act reauthorized the McKinney Act. In 2013, Congress authorized nearly $2 billion for HUD to address the Act’s objectives, reinforcing a system of “metagovernance.”[15] That is, by “setting parameters and facilitating transactions among state, municipal, and private entities,” HUD “creates the conditions of path dependency that partly determine what HUD is able to enact.”[16] Homelessness becomes an expected component of contemporary society, accepted as an inevitability.

Local governments and nonprofits must follow HUD regulations and grant terms in order to receive funding. One of the most taxing mandates that accompanies HUD funding is data collection and reporting. By focusing on numbers, and aggregate numbers at that, HUD perpetuates the myth that homeless people are a distinct population. Instead of addressing the respective needs of each homeless individual, the current paradigm ultimately maintains the stereotype that homeless people are either mentally ill or responsible for their circumstances, due to either an unwillingness to work or a history of poor decision-making. Thus, the “problem” is not properly understood as lack of housing, but rather deemed the homeless themselves. Nonprofits then offer their assistance, either conditioning it on the receipt of mental health treatment or full engagement in a continuum of care process whereby homeless people work their way toward short-term housing. These “solutions” fail to address the root of the problem, and the cycle continues.

Willse does explore the Housing First movement as a potential means of improving conditions for the homeless. This movement recognizes that homeless people, by that very designation, are in need of housing. Housing First providers recognize this need, and provide clients with permanent housing, no strings attached. Providers will facilitate mental health and other social services if requested by the client, but clients are not coerced into any treatment nor exposed to programmatic content without explicit consent. Interestingly, once the crisis of finding a home is solved, many individuals have the stability to seek and benefit from such services.[17] Their health improves, but having the home is a prerequisite. Nevertheless, without addressing the structural foundations of homelessness nationally, Housing First offers only a limited remedy.

Readers unfamiliar with the details of homelessness management and advocacy will assuredly benefit from exposure to Willse’s critique of the neoliberal paradigm. Although Willse’s ideas are complex and philosophically-demanding, even non-academics willing to apply themselves should be capable of following his arguments and conclusions. But, unfortunately, increased knowledge of the status quo is the only reward for making it through the book.

Instead of equipping readers with a blueprint for improving conditions for homeless people, the book largely avoids delving into policy reform. Indeed, this criticism has been made by other reviewers.[18] Despite this reviewer having a background in political science, the question of how to shift into a new sociopolitical paradigm is daunting. It would have been nice if Willse offered some ideas on where to begin advocacy to genuinely address homelessness.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in another critique of the book, which is that its ideas derive from a very particular point of view. One reviewer euphemistically writes that the book “certainly fits within social work’s social justice agenda.”[19] At times, Willse’s work did resemble a manifesto and failed to acknowledge successful work that has been accomplished with and on behalf of homeless people. Surely, the current paradigm must offer – or at least permit – some benefits, aside from the purported perpetuation of white privilege. This reviewer would be interested in learning how to leverage them.

In sum, The Value of Homelessness offers an enlightening prospective on homelessness management within the United States. Readers will gain insight not only into homeless communities and activism, but also into how their own tacit acceptance of the neoliberal paradigm may contribute to the existence of homelessness. Yet readers looking for concrete solutions, as opposed to a philosophical challenge, may wish to deny this book a home on their shelf.

[1] Craig Willse, The Value of Homeless: Managing Surplus Life in the United States (2015) (e-book).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Note that racism does not refer to the racism of contemporary political vocabulary, in which members of a particular race or ethnicity are deemed superior or inferior. Instead, Willse explains that Foucault’s racism refers to the human race broadly.

[10] See Willse, supra note 1.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Lindsay McCarthy, Society & Space, (last accessed: Apr. 1, 2016).

[19] Wayne C. Evens, Book Review,  J. of Soc. Work Values and Ethics,,_volume_12,_no._2/book_reviews/105-106%20Book%20Review%20-%20The%20value%20of%20homelessness-JSWVE-12-2.pdf (2015).