Category Archives: Random Blogging

Power, Voice and Bowling Alone

Americans are increasingly focused on economic inequality, and especially the growing and dangerous gulf between the 1% and everyone else. But of course, no element of our social ecosystem is separate and distinct from the other elements, and the financial gap between wealthy and working class citizens is closely connected to other kinds of inequality.

Children from poor families attend poorly performing schools. The streets and sidewalks and parks in poor neighborhoods are rarely as well maintained as those in wealthier precincts. The prevalence of “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods—the lack of markets selling healthy foods at reasonable prices—has been the subject of numerous articles. These and other tangible manifestations of unequal access to social goods (health care, for example) are relatively obvious.

But there is a less-often recognized kind of inequality: disproportionate access to the public square and the marketplace of ideas. This lack of access to contending perspectives, abetted by the steady erosion of what sociologists call voice, doesn’t just disadvantage the poor. It hurts us all, by depriving us of perspectives we need to hear and understand.

It is certainly true that many Americans, not just the poor, have historically opted out of democratic deliberations. But they had voice–and influence–through a multitude of civic organizations.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote

 Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were responsive.

 “Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

 What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.

 Beginning in 1980, those organizations—a vibrant part of civil society—began to wither. Robert Putnum famously documented the decline in Bowling Alone.

The decline of unions has been especially consequential. As Reich notes, however, other former centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives, and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big agribusiness, and Wall Street. Many of these changes were an intentional result of public policies—everything from Right to Work laws to slackened banking regulations. Others reflected economic and technological shifts.

Meanwhile, political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphed from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.

Although Reich does not include it in his list, we might add the effects of so-called “privatization”—especially the practice of government contracting with nonprofit organizations to deliver public services. Nonprofit scholars have long expressed concern that the growing dependence of human services nonprofits on government dollars has operated to “hollow out” their essential character as mediating institutions.

Reich concludes that the only way to turn this situation around is through greatly increased political activism. I agree.

The open question is whether average Americans have the time, the energy, or the will to  reassert their right to be heard, and to insist on retaking their rightful place at the civic table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May Your Tribe Decrease

In a recent column, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post reported on a social science study that came to some surprising (and depressing) conclusions:

Up until the mid-1980s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion, as a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers demonstrates.

It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, the academics who led the study. Using a variety of social science methods (for example, having study participants review résumés of people that make both their race and party affiliation clear), they document that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”

Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.

The tendency to live among people who share one’s general outlook was highlighted in Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and together with partisan redistricting–gerrymandering–it has resulted in the election of lawmakers whose only allegiance is to the deep-red or deep-blue character of their districts; that in turn has made it virtually impossible for “establishment” politicians to control them. The intransigence (and far too often, blinding stupidity) of these hyper-partisan warriors feeds the tribalism described in the study.

The authors of the study reportedly had no suggestions for how we might close the partisan gap.

In their great 2004 rant, The Urban Archipelagothe editors of The Stranger  looked at the electoral map and saw red and blue America as a rural/urban phenomenon–islands of blue floating in seas of red. They had lots of theories about why city folks were “blue,” and the whole essay is a good read, but if they are correct–and subsequent elections have confirmed the archipelago’s persistence–the ultimate remedy for our partisan tribalism may be demographic: the U.S. population has been migrating steadily to more metropolitan areas and hollowing out great swathes of rural America.

According to the theory, at least, neighbors are less likely to demonize each other.

Speaking of Crazy…..

There have always been paranoid people running around, but when did we start electing so many people who are, as they say, “lightly tethered to reality”?

Case in point: a few days ago, Talking Points Memo reported on a fiasco in Idaho, where a routine bill to bring the state into compliance with federal rules governing child support collections–needed in order to avoid losing $46 million dollars in federal money–failed because conservative legislators said it would have subjected the state to Sharia law.

State Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, a Republican from the small northern community of Cottonwood, raised the objection during the House Judiciary and Rules Committee hearing. She testified that the federal law Idaho was adjusting to incorporated provisions of an international agreement regarding cross-border recovery of child-support payments, the Hague Convention on International Recovery of Child Support and Family Maintenance.

None of the nearly 80 countries involved in the treaty — which the U.S. entered in 2007 — are under Sharia law. But Nuxoll and other skeptics said their concerns were valid because some nations in treaty informally recognize such courts. They added that the provisions of the deal wouldn’t leave Idaho with the authority to challenge another nation’s judgment, particularly if it were under hard-line Islamic law.

Idaho uses federal programs to process in-state and out-of-state child support payments, and compliance with the federal rules is required in order to continue doing so.  Without access to the federal tools, parents who are owed child-support payments will have no way to get those payments.

Apparently, Senator Nuxoll and her “black helicopter” colleagues consider hungry children a small price to pay for averting the imminent threat of a “Sharia law” which they couldn’t define if their lives depended on it.

Just shoot me now.

 

Show Me the Money…

Wasn’t “show me the money” a repeated demand in that Tom Cruise movie, Jerry MacGuire?

The phrase seems appropriate in light of recent news from Indiana’s budget mavens; according to several media reports, state lawmakers will have about $213 million less to spend during the next two years than they thought they would.

And why might that be? After all, we’ve been assured by our elected officials that Right to Work and similar measures would grow Indiana’s economy and fill our coffers, that the ability to hire workers for low wages (because we all know that’s what Right to Work was all about–low wages) would bring “job creators” in droves to our state.

It didn’t seem to occur to our economics-challenged lawmakers that people who work for less have less to spend and less to tax.

The General Assembly’s logic reminds me of the old joke about the business owner who bragged that he was selling more widgets than his competitors, because he had priced his below cost. When he was asked how he expected to make any money, he said he’d make it up on volume.

Low wage workers don’t pay a lot of taxes, and widespread reductions in disposable income translate into less business for retailers and other business establishments, so the amount of tax paid by those businesses is also less than it would otherwise be.  

Nor has Indiana seen the promised influx of new enterprises. Businesses tend to gravitate to places that can offer a high quality of life, and low-tax states like ours can’t compete with places that can spend more money on schools, transportation, parks, public art…. When you don’t have any natural amenities–seashores, mountains, great weather–the absence of those niceties is really noticeable.

You’d think our lawmakers would notice that constantly chasing the lowest common denominator hasn’t worked, but they’re doubling down. This session, it was repeal of the Common Construction Wage.

We’re circling the drain, while our “frugal” lawmakers wonder why they can’t show us the money.

 

Subsidizing the Rich

Lawmakers and pundits continue to beat up on poor folks. The latest effort in Indiana is Democrat Terry Goodin’s proposal to drug test welfare recipients–never mind that such efforts elsewhere have been a colossal waste of money, since savings from the minuscule number of abusers haven’t begun to offset the costs of testing everyone getting benefits.

As I noted in an earlier post, it’s all about shaming and humiliating the “takers.”

But here’s what drives me up the wall: we not only don’t shame those who are ripping us off for more money than welfare recipients could ever dream of, we admire them. We accord them (undeserved) respect, because we think they’re smart businesspeople!

Once again, an academic study has documented what we all know: low-wage business enterprises depend upon taxpayers to support their workers and give them an unearned competitive advantage.

U.S. taxpayers pay roughly $153 billion each year to supplement employers who refuse to pay a livable wage, according to report published Monday by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor.

As the Minnesota Post has noted,

The study most likely understates the degree to which taxpayers subsidize low-wage workers. It was limited to the cost of four major public-assistance programs:  medical assistance, food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable credit to working people with low and moderate incomes.

It did not include the cost of housing assistance, child-care assistance, free school lunches and other programs also available to low income families.

Let’s be clear: there are entrepreneurs and businesspeople who make a lot of money “fair and square.” They don’t offload costs onto taxpayers, either through externalities (dumping pollutants that we must pay to clean up), or paying wages that we must supplement. Those are the good guys, and they’re entitled to enjoy all the benefits their hard work and creativity have generated.

But the so-called “Captains of Industry” who profit at the expense of the public–those whose fat bottom lines depend upon the generosity of taxpayers–are the ones who deserve the scorn that instead gets directed at the single mom who has fallen on hard times, or the factory worker whose job vanished during the last recession.

The real “addicts” are the companies like Walmart and McDonalds whose business models  are dependent upon the drug called other people’s tax dollars.

A lot of us could be successful businesspeople if someone else was paying our employees.