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…..


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.


Words And Deeds

Among the hackneyed adages we all exchange from time to time is the one that admonishes us to Ignore what people say; instead, we’re told to look at what they do. These sorts of standard sayings persist in the culture because they point to a central truth, and this one is no different. Actions really do speak louder than words.

Which brings me to Arizona.

As everyone who reads or listens to the news now knows, the Arizona Supreme Court recently struck down a 15-week limit on abortion, and instead revived an 1864 law banning the procedure–a law so old, it preceded Arizona statehood. The law they revived reads:

“A person who provides, supplies or administers to a pregnant woman, or procures such woman to take any medicine, drugs or substance, or uses or employs any instrument or other means whatever, with intent thereby to procure the miscarriage of such woman, unless it is necessary to save her life, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not less than two years nor more than five years.”

Arizona only became a state in 1912.

Given the toxic politics of abortion bans in the wake of Dobbs, Republicans in the state publicly decried the ruling. Even those who had previously supported total bans issued more “moderate” criticisms of the court’s decision. But then–as another hoary phrase might have it–the rubber hit the road. Democrats in the Arizona legislature proposed to repeal the law–and Republicans refused to allow that repeal to go forward.

As the AP reported:

The Arizona Legislature devolved into shouts of “Shame! Shame!” on Wednesday as Republican lawmakers quickly shut down discussion on a proposed repeal of the state’s newly revived 1864 law that criminalizes abortion throughout pregnancy unless a woman’s life is at risk.

The state Supreme Court cleared the way on Tuesday for enforcement of the pre-statehood law. Arizona abortion providers vowed Wednesday to continue service until they’re forced to stop, possibly within weeks.

State legislators convened as pressure mounted from Democrats and some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, for them to intervene.

House Democrats and at least one Republican tried to open discussion on a repeal of the 1864 abortion ban, which holds no exceptions for rape or incest. GOP leaders, who command the majority, cut it off twice and quickly adjourned for the week. Outraged Democrats erupted in finger-waving chants of “Shame! Shame!”

It is interesting, however, that–despite the candidates’ frequent allusions to their (Christian) religiosity and Right-wing bona fides, none of the ads talk about abortion. And as the media has reported, rather than repeating his frequent previous boasts about being the President who named the Justices who gutted Roe v. Wade, even Trump has tried to “moderate” his position by coming out for a Dobbs-like “states’ rights” position.
What has happened in Arizona should serve as a lesson to voters who might be tempted to believe these GOP efforts to downplay their efforts to end reproductive freedom for America’s women. Once in office, that new not-so-moderate “moderation” will evaporate.
Ignore what they say–and take note of what they do.

Politics: The New Time Religion

Fareed Zakaria is one of our most perceptive pundits. I have purchased his most recent book, Age of Revolutions, and am about halfway through it. Thus far, I’ve found it illuminating.

Zakaria’s recent essay in The Washington Post was similarly illuminating, connecting America’s increased secularization to the growing religious zealotry of the GOP and Trump’s supporters. Here’s his lede:

Reporters have been noticing something new about Donald Trump’s campaign events this time around. They often resemble religious revival meetings. The New York Times notes that where his rallies were once “improvised and volatile,” their finales now feel more planned, solemn and infused with religion. The closing 15 minutes “evokes an evangelical altar call” filled with references to God.

Trump is a shrewd reader of his supporters and has clearly seen what the data show. White evangelicals, who make up about 14 percent of the population, made up about one-quarter of voters in the 2020 election. And about three-quarters of them voted for Donald Trump. Even more striking, of those White voters who attend religious services once a month or more, 71 percent voted for Trump in the 2020 election. (Even similarly religious Black Americans, by contrast, voted for Joe Biden by a 9 to 1 ratio.) The key to understanding Trump’s coalition is the intensity of his support among White people who are and who claim to be devout Christians.
The decline in the nation’s religiosity is one of the many cultural changes that have upset so many Americans. For a number of years, America was an outlier among modern Western nations, most of which had secularized far earlier. (Ironically, scholars mostly attribute this country’s greater religiosity to the Separation of Church and State so despised by Christian Nationalists.) In the 1990s, that began to change, and it has plunged since 2007.
As the scholar Ronald Inglehart has shown, since that year, religious decline in America has been the greatest of any country of the 49 surveyed. By one measure, the United States today is the 12th-least-religious country on Earth. In 1990, according to the General Social Survey, less than 10 percent of Americans had no religious affiliation. Today it’s around 30 percent.
Zakaria considers some of the reasons for the decline, and then turns his attention to what has taken the place of fundamentalist religious dogma: politics. He quotes Walter Lippmann for the observation that modern life has deprived men of the “sense of certainty as to why they were born, why they must work, whom they must love, what they must honor, where they may turn in sorrow and defeat” and notes that Americans who are trying to cope with the loss of that “sense of certainty” have increasingly replaced religious dogma with political extremism.
Over the past few years, this process has been extended even further with those who consider themselves devout Christians defining their faith almost entirely in political terms — by opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights. This in turn has led to a great Democratic dechurching: According to Gallup, Democratic church membership was 46 percent in 2020, down from 71 percent two decades prior. The scholar David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame told the Associated Press, “Increasingly, Americans associate religion with the Republican Party — and if they are not Republicans themselves, they turn away from religion.” This phenomenon — of the right using, even weaponizing religion — is not unique to America or Christianity. You can see it in Brazil, El Salvador, Italy, Israel, Turkey and India, among other places….
This is the great political challenge of our time. Liberal democracy gives people greater liberty than ever before, breaking down repression and control everywhere — in politics, religion and society. But as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Modern society gives us all wealth, technology and autonomy. But for many, these things cannot fill the hole in the heart that God and faith once occupied. To fill it with politics is dangerous. But that seems to be the shape of things to come.
Those of us who embrace life in secular America, who find the wide diversity of opinions, philosophical commitments and religious beliefs stimulating and thought-provoking, confront a political movement powered by people who find the loss of certainty terrifying, and who have compensated for the loss of religious fundamentalism by turning politics into a (similarly fundamentalist) religion.
The problem is, the essence of productive political engagement and governance is negotiation and compromise. Political engagement doesn’t work when one party sees policy disagreements, but the other sees those same disagreements as a battle between good and evil.
MAGA is a religion, and in religion, battles between good and evil are non-negotiable.