Whose Economy Do We Measure?

What can be done about persistent malfunctions of an essential institution? An informed citizenry is critical to democracy–and it’s undermined by our fragmented and inadequate media environment.

I’ve posted numerous times about the multiple ways in which the proliferation of media sites on the Internet have encouraged readers to indulge in confirmation bias–if you really, really want to believe in X, a google search will take you to “journalism” that confirms the existence and accuracy of “X.” That same fragmentation practically invites propaganda from domestic and foreign sources that are increasingly adept at confusion, misdirection and out-and-out lies.

All of the problems aren’t the result of intentional misrepresentation, either. A recent academic study pointed to a feature of contemporary journalism that I had not previously considered. Titled “Whose News? Class-Based Economic Reporting in the United States,” the research was a “deep dive” into economic reporting in the United States.

The abstract explained the nature of the inquiry and the research conclusions.

There is substantial evidence that voters’ choices are shaped by assessments of the state of the economy and that these assessments, in turn, are influenced by the news. But how does the economic news track the welfare of different income groups in an era of rising inequality? Whose economy does the news cover? Drawing on a large new dataset of US news content, we demonstrate that the tone of the economic news strongly and disproportionately tracks the fortunes of the richest households, with little sensitivity to income changes among the non-rich. Further, we present evidence that this pro-rich bias emerges not from pro-rich journalistic preferences but, rather, from the interaction of the media’s focus on economic aggregates with structural features of the relationship between economic growth and distribution. The findings yield a novel explanation of distributionally perverse electoral patterns and demonstrate how distributional biases in the economy condition economic accountability.

The researchers recognized the powerful role played by news media in forming citizens’ beliefs about the performance of government, and especially about the state of the economy.  (Economic performance is an area in which they point out that direct experience is generally of “limited relevance”). Assessments of the economy are particularly important to voters’ electoral choices.  This particular study was concerned with a question that has received very limited scholarly attention: whose material welfare the economic news reflects. In other words, “how responsive is economic reporting to developments affecting different income groups? When voters turn to the news media for an assessment of economic performance, does the signal that they receive reflect the fortunes of most households or of those located at particular points in the income distribution—whether the middle, the bottom, or the top?”

We argue in this paper that the economic news in the United States has, over the last 40 years, painted a portrait of the economy that strongly and disproportionately tracks the welfare of the very rich. Analyzing a vast, original dataset of news articles in 32 high-circulation US newspapers over this period, we uncover clear evidence that reporting on the US economy is descriptively class-biased. Footnote1 Specifically, the evaluative content of economic news becomes more positive (negative) in periods in which the incomes of the very rich grow (shrink) and is largely uncorrelated with change in the incomes of less well-off Americans, once growth in incomes at the top is taken into account. Put simply, good economic news tracks, above all, the fortunes of the most affluent.

The research attributes this phenomenon in large part to the fact that government and media track economic performance in the aggregate–and averages, as we know, can be misleading. (If you average Bill Gates wealth with that of a fast-food worker, you are going to get a result that is pretty meaningless–or, as the paper puts it, class-biased economic news “tracks the ups and downs of the business cycle in the context of an economy that distributes income growth in powerfully class-biased ways.”)

The results suggest an explanation, for instance, of why incumbents presiding over sharp increases in economic inequality in the United States have not been penalized at the ballot box.

The study has particular relevance to the current disconnect between voters’ impressions about economic performance and the data that tracks that performance. Data from a variety of sources suggests that working class folks have been doing considerably better during the Biden Administration than they were previously, and that most are unaware of that fact due to the relative lack of economic reporting focused on wage-earners or on the policy changes that have begun reducing the gap between the rich and the rest.

As the paper points out, journalists need to focus more on “distributional dynamics.”


What “Let the States Decide” Ignores

There are a number of legal and practical objections to Republicans’ recent, deeply misleading efforts to convince Americans that leaving abortion restrictions to the states is a “moderate” position. The most obvious is that fundamental constitutional liberties are just that–fundamental. Legislators don’t get to vote on whether to allow freedom of speech or religion within their states (a good thing, if you live in places like Indiana, where the GOP super-majority would undoubtedly limit those civil liberties).

Practical objections are numerous: legislative bodies are conspicuously devoid of medical expertise, and ideological lawmakers have demonstrated that they have no understanding of the real-world complexities of the decisions involved; laws that require women to travel long distances for critical medical care discriminate against low-income patients…Most of you reading this post can supply a number of others.

But it wasn’t until I read a recent opinion essay in the New York Times that I had a small epiphany: leaving the issue to the states–despite the pious rhetoric emphasizing voting– is also profoundly anti-democratic, and not just in states like Indiana where citizens lack access to initiatives and/or referenda. Successful gerrymandering–partisan redistricting–ensures that “the people” lack the means to make such decisions.

As Jamelle Bouie writes:

Nearly everywhere Republicans hold power, they fight to rewire the institutions of government in the hope that they will then generate the desired result: more and greater Republican power.

And so we have the North Carolina Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican majorities, the Ohio Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican supermajorities, the Florida Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican supermajorities, and the Florida Supreme Court overhauled to secure and uphold Republican priorities.

The states’ rights case for determining abortion access — let the people decide — falters on the fact that in many states, the people cannot shape their legislature to their liking. Packed and split into districts designed to preserve Republican control, voters cannot actually dislodge anti-abortion Republican lawmakers. A pro-choice majority may exist, but only as a shadow: present but without substance in government.

Polling on the issue of abortion proves his point. Even in deep Red states, pro-choice voters outnumber forced birth supporters by considerable margins, as we’ve seen in states like Kansas and Kentucky where voters have the means to mount constitutional referendums.

In states that lack those mechanisms, as Bouie notes, Republican legislators or jurists unwilling to concede to majority opinion (or constitutional precedent) can respond with the dead hand of the past.

Both the federal courts and the Arizona Supreme Court have conjured a past that smothers the right to bodily autonomy. Anti-abortion activists are also trying to conjure a past, in the form of the long-dormant Comstock Act, that gives government the power to regulate the sexual lives of its citizens. As Moira Donegan notes in a column for The Guardian, “Comstock has come to stand in, in the right-wing imagination, for a virtuous, hierarchically ordered past that can be restored in a sexually repressive and tyrannically misogynistic future.”

This effort may well fail, but the drive to leash the country to an imagined vision of a reactionary past should be seen as a silent confession of weakness. The same is true, for that matter, of the authoritarian dreams of the former president and his allies and acolytes….

Put a bit differently, a confident political movement does not fight to dominate; it works to persuade. It does not curate a favorable electorate or frantically burrow itself into our counter-majoritarian institutions; it competes for power on an even playing field, assured of its appeal and certain of its ability to win. It does not hide its agenda or shield its plans from public view; it believes in itself and its ideas.

That last paragraph is a succinct description of where we are as a nation right now. In far too many states, very much including my own state of Indiana, the GOP has “curated a favorable electorate.” Republicans have also benefitted mightily from counter-majoritarian institutions that have bestowed extra electoral clout on rural voters and low-density populations.

Regular readers of this blog are well aware of my periodic rants about the pernicious and anti-democratic effects of gerrymandering, but I didn’t understand until I read this essay that the practice is also an essential tool for depriving American citizens of their bodily autonomy and other civil liberties.

Gerrymandering is a critical part of the effort to return America to the past of GOP wet dreams…..


Virtue Is Non-Binary

I often find myself quoting David French, a lawyer/author I read and respect. Despite the fact that I deeply disagree with certain of his positions, I find him thoughtful, civil and willing to concede the legitimacy of those with whom he differs–attributes entirely missing from the MAGA Rightwingers with whom, until recently, he shared a political party.

French recently published an important opinion piece in the New York Times on masculinity and in the process of that discussion, he made an (implicit) point that should be widely shared. The essay centered on current concerns over the perceived “crisis” in masculinity and the status of men and boys.

To understand the state of men in this country, it’s necessary to know three things.

First, millions of men are falling behind women academically and suffering from a lack of meaning and purpose. Second, there is no consensus whatsoever on whether there’s a problem, much less how to respond and pull millions of men back from the brink. Third, many men are filling the void themselves by turning to gurus to guide their lives. They’re not waiting for elite culture, the education establishment or the church to define manhood. They’re turning to Andrew Tate, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson and a host of others — including Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson — to show them the way.

French describes the various “remedies” prescribed by these particular individuals, and dismisses them:

It’s as if an entire self-help industry decided the best cure for one form of dysfunction is simply a different dysfunction. Replace passivity and hopelessness with frenetic activity, tinged with anger and resentment. Get in the weight room, dress sharper, develop confidence and double down on every element of traditional masculinity you believe is under fire.

Yes, men are absolutely feeling demoralized, as Richard Reeves put it in his brilliant book “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.” But what is the influencer advice in response? Lash out. Fight. Defy the cultural elite that supposedly destroyed your life.

After pondering various definitions of masculinity, and considering their positive and negative attributes, French makes an incredibly important  point–the observation that led me to use the term “non-binary” in the title of this post. (Non-binary isn’t simply a description of one type of sexuality–it refers to matters that cannot be reduced to an “either/or” proposition.)

Can we sidestep the elite debate over masculinity by approaching the crisis with men via an appeal to universal values rather than to the distinctively male experience? In other words, is there a universal approach to shaping character that can have a disproportionately positive impact on our lost young men?

French quotes Jeffrey Rosen for the classical definition of “pursuit of happiness,” which–to the nation’s Founders– did not mean “pursuit of pleasure” but instead meant pursuit of virtue: being a lifelong learner, self-mastery, flourishing and growth. In this reading, the pursuit of happiness is “a quest, not a destination, in part because we are always a work in progress, even to our last days.”

And what are these classical virtues? Benjamin Franklin’s list included temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity and humility. I prefer the shorter and simpler formulation in Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage.

French argues–persuasively–that the pursuit of these virtues, aka a “virtue ethic,” is far preferable to America’s prevailing “success ethic,” which measures manly success by materialistic metrics. He argues that the current obsession with an ideal masculinity diverts attention from the urgent need to provide children with “a purpose that is infinitely more satisfying than the ambition and rebellion that define the ethos of the gurus who are leading so many young men astray.”

What struck me about this conclusion is something French didn’t say: that the pursuit of virtue is ultimately non-binary. It is not the exclusive province of either males or females, but an aspiration appropriate to humans generally.

Discussions of masculinity and femininity are all well and good; I’m not blind to the biological and/or psychological differences between cis men and women. But a great deal of current male resentment–not to mention misogyny and homophobia– is a result of efforts to emphasize those differences and ignore the much larger human commonalities between (among?) the genders.

Franklin and Aristotle identify human virtues. We need a culture that elevates pursuit of virtue to a status that is at least equal to pursuit of material success, and avoids emphasizing what makes the genders distinctive rather than the human characteristics they share.


Not Even A Festivus For The Rest Of Us…

Unlike most Americans, I was never a big “Seinfeld” fan, but many of the sitcom’s jokes became widespread–none more than its promotion of “Festivus for the rest of us,” a “celebration” for those who don’t celebrate Christmas.

What brought that mythical holiday to mind was a very unfunny report from Talking Points Memo about America’s growing Christian Nationalist movement, a movement that–if successful–will leave no room for alternate (i.e. nonChristian) holidays. The sub-head really says it all: “From traditional Christian-right figures to secret societies envisioning a ‘national divorce,’ a growing contingent of radical activists is planning for Christian supremacy.”

The report was written by Sarah Posner, a journalist who has covered the Christian Right for two decades.

Over the past three years, I began to more frequently use the term “Christian nationalism” to describe the movement I cover. But I did not start using a new term to suggest its proponents’ ideology had changed. Instead, the term had come into more common usage in the Trump era, now regularly used by academics, journalists, and pro-democracy activists to describe a movement that insists America is a “Christian nation” — that is, an illiberal, nominally democratic theocracy, rather than a pluralistic secular democracy.

To me, the phrase was highly descriptive of the movement I’ve dedicated my career to covering, and neatly encapsulates the core threat the Christian right poses to freedom and equality. From its top leaders and influencers down to the grassroots — politically mobilized white evangelicals, the foot soldiers of the Christian right — its proponents believe that God divinely ordained America to be a Christian nation; that this Christian nation has come under attack by liberals and secularists; and that patriotic Christians must engage in spiritual warfare to rid America of demonic forces, and in political action to restore its Christian heritage. That includes taking political steps — as a voter, as an elected official, as a lawyer, as a judge — to ensure that America is governed according to a “biblical worldview.”

Those of us who occupy a far more secular America have been laboring under the misapprehension that religious wars are things of the past. Those of us who are comfortable in a society formed in large part by changes introduced during the Enlightenment–respect for science and empiricism, belief that governments derive their powers from the people, not from deity–have a hard time recognizing, let alone understanding, a worldview that remains rooted in the 16th Century. But that is the worldview that has spawned today’s politically active megachurches, and what the article calls “culture-shaping organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

These “Christian soldiers” want governance according to their vision of a biblical worldview. They oppose church-state separation, want expanded rights for conservative Christians, are dead-set against abortion and LGBTQ rights, and are extremely hostile to trans people and trans rights. (Here in Indiana, Jim Banks–currently the unopposed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, often called “Focus on the Family’s man in Washington, is a perfect example of a Christian Nationalist “warrior.”)

Posner and several others have noted the prominence of Christian iconography at the January 6 insurrection, and the growing willingness of MAGA Christians to tolerate, even welcome, virulent racists, anti-Semites and other extremists in their midst. As she writes, “Their entire alliance with Trump is one of sharing political and ideological space with the overtly antisemitic, racist, Islamophobic, nativist extremists he elevated to mainstream status in the GOP.”

Posner describes the various strands within Christian Nationalism, but notes commonalities as well: they “believe they are restoring, and will run, the Christian nation God intended America to be — from the inside.”

They will do that, in their view, through faith (evangelizing others and bringing them to salvation through Jesus Christ); through spiritual warfare (using prayer to battle satanic enemies of Christian America); and through politics and the law (governing and lawmaking from a “biblical worldview” after eviscerating church-state separation). Changes in the evangelical world, particularly the emphasis in the growing charismatic movement on prophecy, signs and wonders, spiritual warfare, the prosperity gospel, and Trumpism, has intensified the prominence of the supernatural in their politics, giving their Christian nationalism its own unmistakable brand.

Every single MAGA politician elected in November will be a foot-soldier for Christian Nationalism. A Trump victory would give them free reign to remake America in accordance with a “Godly” vision–a vision that was expressly rejected by the nation’s Founders.

The world that these Christian Nationalist politicians inhabit (and want to impose upon all of America) is pre-modern, intolerant, anti-science, anti-democracy. It has no room for “the rest of us.”


Why America Has Minority Rule

As the election season heats up, saving American democracy has become a central preoccupation of those of us who fear a second Trump administration. But even if we are able to turn back the threat posed by MAGA and Trump, we will need to face the fact that America hasn’t been a true democracy–or democratic Republic– for quite awhile (if ever), even if your definition of democratic rule incorporates the limits on majority rule imposed by the Bill of Rights. (I do accept that definition–the Founders created a system that empowered majority decision-making on many things, but limited the power of government when such limits were necessary to protect individual rights. Those are limitations we can live with.)

Other limitations, not so much. Thanks to the composition of the Senate and other obsolete electoral mechanisms, America is currently governed by a (largely rural) minority.

I’ve frequently alluded to that reality, and to both the pressing need to change it and the difficulty of doing so, but as my oldest son noted when he shared a link to a Mother Jones article, “This article provides an excellent overview of the situation.”

He’s right.

The article was abstracted from Ari Berman’s new book, Minority Rule: The Right-Wing Attack on the Will of the People—and the Fight to Resist It, which will be published April 23.  Berman began by quoting a recent speech by President Biden, in which he warned: “We’re living in an era where a determined minority is doing everything in its power to try to destroy our democracy for their own agenda.”

That’s undoubtedly true. But the crisis Biden described—and the choice facing the nation this November—is much older and deeper than Trump. A determined minority has been trying to shape the foundations of American governance for their own benefit since the inception of the republic. For more than two centuries, a fierce struggle has played out between forces seeking to constrict democracy and those seeking to expand it. In 2024, the country is once again immersed in a pivotal battle over whom the political system should serve and represent.

Berman writes that the United States has historically been a laboratory for both oligarchy and genuine democracy, and that understanding that fight requires us to grasp what he calls the “long-standing clash between competing notions of majority rule and minority rights.”

The founders, despite the lofty ideals in the Declaration of Independence, designed the Constitution in part to check popular majorities and protect the interests of a propertied white upper class. The Senate was created to represent the country’s elite and boost small states while restraining the more democratic House of Representatives. The Electoral College prevented the direct election of the president and enhanced the power of small states and slave states. The makeup of the Supreme Court was a product of these two undemocratic institutions. But as the United States has democratized in the centuries since, extending the vote and many other rights to formerly disenfranchised communities, the antidemocratic features built into the Constitution have become even more pronounced, to the point that they are threatening the survival of representative government in America.

I was especially struck by the following paragraph, which succinctly sums up where we find ourselves today:

The timing of our modern retreat from democracy is no coincidence. The nation is now roughly 20 years away from a future in which white people will no longer be the majority. New multiracial coalitions are gaining ground in formerly white strongholds like Georgia. To entrench and hold on to power, a shrinking conservative white minority is ­relentlessly exploiting the undemocratic elements of America’s political institutions while doubling down on tactics such as voter suppressionelection subversion, and the censoring of history. This reactionary movement—which is significantly overrepresented because of the structure of the Electoral College, Congress, and gerrymandered legislative districts—has retreated behind a fortress to stop what it views as the coming siege.

The article reinforces what numerous legal scholars and historians have argued, that the compromises the Founders made in the late 1700s–intended to keep the new nation together– are enabling minority rule in 2024, and ripping the country apart in the process. In 1776, there was fear of majoritarian excesses–what many of the Founders called “the passions of the majority.” Today, we face the excesses of a frantic and fanatic minority–a minority empowered by long-ago structures aimed at a very different target.

The article is lengthy, but well worth reading in its entirety. As my son noted, it provides an accurate and comprehensive description of the systemic problems that have hollowed out American democracy and brought us to the current impasse.