All posts by Sheila

Happy Thanksgiving!

On Thanksgivings past, my kids would call me the “gratitude gestapo” because I insisted on going around our bountiful table and making everyone say what they were thankful for.

I’m not sorry.

I’m aware that I am incredibly lucky to buffered against many of the very real problems that others face–problems that are so often the subject of discussion and concern here.

So I’m going to spend today being grateful–for my health, my endlessly supportive husband and our wonderful children and children-in-laws, for our extended family, and for all of you who are kind enough to visit this blog read my daily diatribes.

Happy Thanksgiving! (I’ll be back to my grumpy self tomorrow…)

Speaking Of Structural Racism…

Discussions of Critical Race Theory are worse than useless, since most of the people arguing about CRT have absolutely no idea what it is. It has simply become the most recent wedge issue employed by the portion of America’s population intent upon protecting White privilege.

In other words, a distraction.

Why–you might well ask–do these angry people need a distraction? Since I’m not a psychiatrist (nor do I play one on TV), I can’t provide a truly satisfactory answer to that question. But as Americans continue to confront–or refuse to recognize– elements of our social landscape that document how inequitable that landscape truly is, a recent paper issued by The Brookings Institution may prove instructive.

It’s one thing to talk– as we academic types tend to do–about abstractions like “systemic racism.” Those abstractions are frequently dismissed by the people who become defensive in any discussion of unfairness based upon race. The Brookings study is more concrete; rather than talking in abstract terms, it paints a picture of what systemic racism is and does.

In September, Freddie Mac released a groundbreaking analysis of the U.S. home appraisal industry. Consistent with concerns raised by critics, they found that homes in Black and Latino or Hispanic neighborhoods are much more likely than homes in white neighborhoods to be valued below what a buyer has offered to pay.

A homeowner here in Indianapolis recently documented that appraisal bias.

The Brookings researchers found that Black neighborhoods were associated with much lower property values, and that only a relatively small portion of that effect could be explained by physical characteristics and neighborhood amenities.

Median home values in majority Black census tracts are 55% lower than median home values in non-Latino or Hispanic white census tracts. Part of this difference is attributable to quality differences between the housing stock. Lower wealth in Black communities means that homes in majority Black neighborhoods tend to be older, smaller, and more likely to be attached than homes in neighborhoods with few or no Black people. Lower wealth and lower home values further hinder the ability of Black homeowners to pay for structural improvements to the home and access mortgage refinancing to pay for renovations.

There are also differences in neighborhood quality that show up in housing price differences. Local schools are often less desirable—at least as measured by publicly available test scores accessible to home buyers—in majority Black neighborhoods than in non-Black neighborhoods. Some other characteristics of Black neighborhoods are more desirable, such as access to public transportation and proximity to local stores, but on average, they do not make up for the less desirable features. These structural and neighborhood characteristics explain some of the value penalty to housing in Black neighborhoods, which shrinks to 23% from 55% after adjusting for these factors.

That still leaves a lot of lost value. We estimate that losses amount to $48,000 per home and $156 billion cumulatively in majority Black neighborhoods.

The question is: What explains this?

In the linked paper, the scholars consider–and carefully rebut–criticisms of their research methodology. Interestingly, they also show that White-only neighborhoods are over-valued relative to Black neighborhoods.

Later in the paper, they return to that Freddie Mac study.

A team of economists and data scientists at Freddie Mac analyzed more than 12 million appraisals for purchase transactions submitted to Freddie Mac from January 1, 2015, to December 31, 2020 through the Uniform Collateral Data Portal (UCDP). Freddie Mac is a government-sponsored enterprise chartered to buy mortgages from banks in order to lower the cost and increase the supply of residential loans. In practice, their strict standards set the industry norm for what qualifies as an acceptable loan, and they have access to uniquely detailed data on mortgages submitted by banks.

The research team’s main finding is that homes located in majority Black neighborhoods and majority Latino or Hispanic neighborhoods are significantly more likely to have appraisals submitted to Freddie Mac that are below the contract price when compared to homes in majority white (not Latino or Hispanic) neighborhoods.

The research finds “strong evidence that appraisers discriminate against majority Black and majority Latino or Hispanic neighborhoods. They note in passing that their conclusions track with other other studies, including those showing that Black people are around 36% less likely to be called back for a job than white people with identical resumes.

This is what we mean when we talk about “systemic” racism.

No one is burning a cross on a Black person’s lawn, but the effects are–if anything–more detrimental.

Wow…Indianapolis Is Doing Something Right

A few years ago, my husband and I took a long-planned cruise around South America. Our point of embarkation was Buenos Aires, and we booked a small hotel that had been recommended to us for a few days before setting sail, to see a bit of the city. The street in front of the hotel was being repaved, and we were struck by how Argentinians approached that task –they weren’t “resurfacing” the street by putting a few inches of asphalt over the roadway, they were reconstructing it. We watched as they dug down at least two feet, and carefully prepared the substructure before repaving it (with granite, no less!)

When they were done, they expected it to last many, many years.

I don’t know how other cities in the U.S. approach street maintenance, but as long as I have lived in Indianapolis, I have seen the way our city “fixes” our potholed thoroughfares. City administrations have repeatedly  covered the crumbling substructures with thin coats of asphalt (at the same time confirming the old political adage that “long-term to a politician is until the next election.”)

I have not been all that happy with our city’s current, timid administration (for reasons not relevant to this post), but credit where credit is due: they are actually rebuilding city streets. Properly.

We moved in May to the downtown core, and realized we’d moved into a construction zone; the major thoroughfare running past the exit to our parking garage has been torn up for months. But we’re not complaining, because the City is actually repairing it the correct way–digging down and rebuilding, just like the street repair we’d seen in Argentina.

Now there is news that the city will take that same approach to other, formerly neglected streets in Indianapolis–not just those in the urban core.

As the Indianapolis Star recently reported

Ninety miles of residential streets throughout Indianapolis will get complete makeovers next year through a rare $25 million infusion of cash.

The streets will not simply be repaved, but entirely reconstructed, reflecting a shift in strategy for the Department of Public Works from surface-level fixes to more expensive, but more longterm, deeper fixes.

That “shift in strategy” is more than welcome. Indianapolis–and all of Indiana–has followed the “penny wise, pound foolish” method of infrastructure maintenance for far too long. The usual approach–visually paving over the problem and pretending it’s solved–saves dollars initially, rewarding politicians who then brag about doing more with less while ignoring the fact that those superficial “fixes” cost taxpayers much more over the longer term.

But hey–longer term, most of them intend to be occupying a different/higher position…Leave it for the next guy to deal with.

In all fairness to our short-term politicos–they think they are being responsive to the majority of constituents who insist on government services on the cheap, the citizens who want to drive on smooth roads, visit well-maintained parks, and depend on properly trained and equipped police and fire departments–but who definitely don’t want to pay an extra nickel in taxes in order to support those services.

This attitude is incredibly shortsighted. Not only do the quick fixes require more frequent resurfacing, driving on streets that are constantly pockmarked and potholed due to underlying structural failures causes flat tires and bent rims that those tax-averse citizens end up paying out-of-pocket.

The administration says that funds to do Indy’s streets properly are coming from savings that accumulated during the pandemic, when city departments instituted hiring freezes and cut discretionary spending. Those funds should be augmented by Biden’s massive infrastructure bill, allowing even more repairs.

Proper street re-construction will take more time, and will cause traffic problems, but I for one will be delighted to put up with those inconveniences.

Now, if we could only get our utilities to buy into that longer-term strategy and bury their poles and wires…think of how much money they’d save after the next storm takes their above-grade infrastructure down, causing widespread outages…

 

 

Policy, Politics And Reality

Paul Krugman condenses our current democratic dysfunction into one pithy paragraph.

In principle, voters should judge politicians by their actions; they should support politicians who pursue policies that help them, oppose politicians whose policies would hurt them. To do this, however, voters should have a reasonably good idea of what policy is doing.

Krugman is focused on economic policy, but his evaluation of what voters know–very little–is equally true of other policy domains. As he says, In a sensible world–i.e., one that worked as envisioned– voters would have both “a reasonably accurate picture of what’s happening” and a basic understanding of what aspects of our lives are actually under politicians’ control.

As he points out, in the world we inhabit, neither of these things is true. (This observation echoes a popular meme making the Facebook rounds, to the effect that it’s easy to believe in conspiracies when you have no idea how things really work.)

Krugman uses the current gloom over the economy as an example.

Start with the state of the economy. You might be tempted to assume that in a world in which getting and spending occupies a large part of everyone’s life, people would have a pretty good sense of how the economy is doing, even if they aren’t familiar with national income accounting. In reality, however, economic perceptions are largely shaped by media coverage — and, increasingly, by partisanship.

Indeed, the role of partisan skew has gotten so large recently that the Michigan Survey of Consumers, probably the most influential gauge of economic perceptions, highlighted it in its most recent data release; you might say that the Michigan Survey has warned us not to trust the Michigan Survey.

He has appended a chart illustrating the wide differences in consumer sentiment among self-identified Democrats and Republicans since 2019. The chart shows–among other things- that today’s Republicans  have a more negative assessment of economic conditions than they did in March 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, a time when unemployment was at 8.7 percent and the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month.

Other data confirms Krugman’s point that people’s views on the economy reflect what partisan media and their own political preferences are telling them; they show “a huge divergence between what people say about the state of the economy, which is quite negative on average, and what they say about their own personal finances.”

Then there’s the grousing about Biden and the increase in gas prices, despite the fact that the rise is global and Presidents have virtually no control over them.

So we’re living in a nation with many voters who seem to have both a distorted view of the state of the economy and false beliefs about what aspects of the economy politicians can affect. How is democracy supposed to function well under these conditions?…

The fact remains that public perceptions have become extremely disconnected from reality — economics is just one example. It’s a real conundrum. And if you’re waiting for me to propose solutions, well, not today.

That disconnect from reality is an absolutely foreseeable consequence of our national inability to know who and what we can trust.

The constant drumbeat about “fake news,” the willingness of far too many elected officials to lie through their teeth–not to mention their unwillingness to call a lie a lie–aided and abetted by media outlets engaged in propaganda rather than news, are all bad enough.But they would be far less effective if the population at large was minimally knowledgable–if people knew the basic facts about America’s legal framework, the rudiments of economic theory and the difference between science and religion.

When people who are ignorant of  those basics are constantly told that the “legacy” news media is peddling falsehoods, that “others” are to be feared and their voices discounted, that the United States was founded as a “Christian Nation,” that scientific “theories” are  nothing more than wild-ass guesses, and much more–they are far more susceptible to conspiracy theories and disinformation. Some of those theories are so far out–space lasers, pedophiles in charge of the federal government and similar lunacies–that most relatively sane people will reject them, but others–the President is in charge of prices at the gas pump, or the economy is not as robust as it looks–are far more likely to take hold.

When we no longer have Walter Cronkite (or reasonable clones) to trust, all bets are off.

 

Strategy And Language Matter

One of the more under-appreciated consequences of living in information “bubbles” is  lack of recognition of the realities of political communication. 

Because I write this blog, I routinely access messages from the left, right and (dwindling) center, and it has become obvious that Americans who reside in silos are simply unaware of what the people in other bubbles are hearing and thinking. They aren’t only “preaching to the choir”–they believe most of the church is singing their hymns. 

I will admit to a partial bias in that direction myself–as I read claims made by those promulgating the “Big Lie” or bizarre beliefs of QAnon adherents, I wonder how any sentient person could believe such nonsense. But then, I remind myself that an uncomfortable number of people do believe these things–and that the language we employ to communicate with their fellow-travelers matters.

In my own silo, too many people have forgotten that. Too many see arguments about strategy as lack of commitment to progressive goals. 

We saw this most recently with the disastrous “Defund the Police” slogan. No one I know disagreed with the goals of the “defund” movement, which were eminently reasonable. But people with even a moderate understanding of political strategy understood how easily that slogan could be weaponized against progressive candidates.  Purists defending the slogan by insisting that it “just needed to be explained” were incredibly naive.

If there is one thing Republicans do well, it’s demonizing and weaponizing progressive terminology. It began a long time ago, when the GOP managed to turn “liberal” into a swear word, or a synonym for communist. They have had somewhat less success with “socialist,” mostly because they accuse any government action–most recently, repairing infrastructure–as “socialism.” (Or in Marjorie Taylor Green’s case, as communism.)

That one talent–turning progressive words into weapons–can derail well-intentioned but clumsy efforts to avoid hurtful language. 

Michelle Goldberg recently wrote about one such effort to demonstrate “wokeness” via terminology.

If you follow debates over the strident style of social justice politics often derided as “wokeness,” you might have heard about a document called “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts.” Put out by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Health Justice, the guide is a long list of terms and phrases that some earnest people have decided others in the medical field should avoid using, along with their preferred substitutes.

Some of these substitutions make sense; health care professionals shouldn’t be referring to people who’ve been in prison as “ex-cons.” Some are a matter of keeping up with the times, like capitalizing Black when talking about Black people. Some, however, are obnoxious and presumptuous and would impede clear communication. For example, the guide suggests replacing “vulnerable” with “oppressed,” even though they’re not synonymous: it’s not oppression that makes the elderly vulnerable to Covid.

As Goldberg points out, “Advancing Health Equity” would probably be ignored, if it didn’t “inadvertently advance the right-wing narrative that progressive newspeak is colonizing every aspect of American life.” Parts of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” movement are admittedly heavy-handed and feckless, and the rest of us keep having to answer for them.

John McWhorter, recently made much the same point in a column about the use and misuse of the term woke. McWhorter traced the emergence of the term and its original utility–and the subsequent success of reactionaries and White Nationalists in weaponizing it.

“Woke” has also followed a trajectory similar to that of the phrase “politically correct,” which carried a similar meaning by the late 1980s and early 1990s: “Politically correct,” unsurprisingly, went from describing a way of seeing the world to describing the people who saw the world that way to describing the way other people felt about the people who saw the world that way. Some in the politically correct crowd on the left had a way of treating those outside it with a certain contempt. This led to the right refashioning “politically correct” as a term of derision, regularly indicated with the tart abbreviation “P.C.” The term faded over the years, and by 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald Trump was declaring that “political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country,” “woke” already had greater currency.

There probably wasn’t much progressives could do about “woke,” which began as a useful descriptor. But as Goldberg points out, there is a lesson here, and activists who actually want to win elections need to learn it. Language matters–and reluctance to use terminology that is a gift to the GOP isn’t evidence of a lesser commitment to the cause.