Social and economic inequality

2009 04 07
Recently read: More Than Just Race

William Julius Wilson. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City

At the heart of this book is a distinction between structural and cultural causes of enduring inter-generational poverty and social marginalization. Structural causes include our institutions and our social and economic policies, in so far as they impact the life prospects of the less advantaged. Cultural causes include those collective understandings and behavioural scripts shared by members of some group which arguably play a role in perpetuating the lower status and achievements of that group.

Liberal and conservative opinion in American political cultural has tended to put practical and rhetorical emphasis on one or the other of these causes of poverty, with liberals favouring structural explanations for enduring, inter-generational poverty and conservatives favouring cultural ones. Liberals tend to argue that conservatives’ preference for cultural explanations end up “blaming the victim,” with conservatives responding that liberals miss an important dimension of the dynamics of poverty. These debates have been particularly sharp when they focus on the fate of black Americans in American society, and the reasons for the continued marginalization and poverty of significant numbers of them.

Wilson wants to reintroduce culture as a respectable explanatory factor in the story of poverty and marginalization in black communities, albeit only one among a complex and interacting set of causes. But as a black liberal scholar and a veteran of these debates, he’s well aware of the rhetorical and substantive risks of doing so. So in spite of his stated aim of reintroducing culture as part of the explanation for poverty, much of his book reads as a sharp rebuke to the many attempts to use cultural explanations to explain the social and economic marginalization of black men.

When Wilson finally gets around explaining how cultural causes might play a role in comprehensive explanations of poverty, it’s clear that it’s often by mediating the impact of structural causes of poverty, and that the best social science available suggests that culture is of much less importance than structural causes. Some of the most interesting passages in the book debunk popular attempts to draw a connection between culture and poverty in the black community. In the end, however, Wilson sees real value—substantive and rhetorical—in acknowledging the limited ways in which culture matters in the perpetuation of poverty and marginalization. In Obama’s rhetoric about race, especially in his remarkable March 2008 speech (“A More Perfect Union”), Wilson finds these two themes of culture and social structure brought together in an analytically effective and rhetorically persuasive combination.

This is a good and worthwhile book. There are a number of points in the book at which Wilson might have signaled his main themes more clearly, since they sometimes get lost in the blizzard of qualifications, counterarguments and on-the-other-hands. Wilson’s prose style is also a bit dryly academic, which may unfortunately get in the way of the wide readership his book deserves. Although Wilson is very interested in reintroducing cultural explanations for poverty, in the American context the most valuable thing about this book will be its vigorous and cogent defence of the relevance of structural causes and its equally effective rebuttal of lazy cultural explanations.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 03 23
Recently read

Brecht. Galileo

Brecht explores the moral difficulties in Gallileo’s decision to recant. Not bad.

Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy

A fun little book that provides a healthy dose of motivation to the non-mathematical to get their (our!) act together. Paulos provides lots of examples of fuzzy thinking that follow from a neglect of basic mathematics. At times Paulos seems to cast his net a bit more broadly than mathematics even, commenting on various fallacies in informal reasoning. But that’s ok – those mistakes matter too.

Frank. Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class

Entertaining and reasonably well-written. Frank charts the rise of inequality in American society since WWII, and then explains why he thinks that inequality is so harmful. Some goods are absolute goods. These we care about regardless of how much other people have. Others are positional goods. These we value very differently depending on context, most importantly how others around us are doing with respect to that good. Frank argues that many more goods are positional than one might first think, and then ties this insight to his observations about rising inequality. The result is a decent critique of a lot of mainstream assumptions about inequality in American society, and more broadly of the social policies that have produced it.

Two quibbles. First, it’s ok to dumb down a bit for a popular book, but Frank’s remarks about evolutionary psychology were pretty silly at times. I’d have to read Frank’s other work on the subject to know whether I would find a more careful statement of his views silly. But anyway, I don’t really think Frank needed to introduce claims about evolutionary psychology in the first place. His motivation for doing so, if I understood it correctly, was just to point out that the psychological tendencies he’s attributing to us are fairly stubbornly entrenched. But a) you don’t need to point to evolutionary considerations to do that; and b) you shouldn’t point to evolutionary considerations to do that (just for starters, innateness and malleability are completely distinct issues).

Second quibble: Frank talks throughout about the middle class. He even put the middle class in the subtitle of his book. But the book really seems to be about how just about everyone gets screwed by rising inequality, even very well-off people. So perhaps the subtitle to his book ought to have been “How Rising Inequality Harms Us All.”

Tufte, Edward R.The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Superb. Tufte wrote the book in the last seventies and early eighties; it changed the way many people think about how to display quantitative information in a clear, engaging and helpful way. Tufte’s book is part polemic against a dumbing down of statistical charts on the grounds that no one finds them interesting, and part analysis of what considerations go into getting it right. Good stuff.

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2007 07 31
Caveat Brooks-Reader

Today David Brooks writes:

Edwards would create a million housing vouchers for working families. These would, he argues, ”enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools.” They’d help people move to where the jobs are and foster economic integration.

The problem with his approach is that past efforts at dispersal produced disappointing results. Families who were given the means to move from poor neighborhoods to middle-class areas did not see incomes rise. Girls in those families did a little better, but boys did worse. They quickly formed subcultures in the new communities that replicated patterns of the old ones. Male criminality rose, but test scores did not.

I wonder which studies he submitted to the NYT fact-checkers to support this claim? Here’s what I’ve read:

This has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through its Moving To Opportunity (MTO) experiment, in which it was found that residents moving from poverty-stricken neighborhoods into more affluent areas saw positive health results. The MTO program was an ambitious experiment by HUD, building on the famous Gautreaux litigation and the emerging concept that deconcentrating poverty is the most efficient way to improve the lives of the poor. The Gautreaux families were dispersed throughout the Chicago area and when freed from the harms of concentrated poverty, they were much more likely to be employed, their children did better in school, and they were generally safer. (Myron Orfield, “Segregation and Environmental Justice” (pdf), Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology 147 (2005).

But Brooks tells me otherwise. What ever shall I believe?

UPDATE: Thanks to Aaron in the comments for pointing to this post by Ezra Klein in which Klein praises this Brooks column. Klein points to this set of studies on the Moving to Opportunity program that seems to confirm some of Brooks’s worries. It does appear that the results from Gautreaux were more promising in many ways than were those for MTO. Indeed, MTO was inspired by the successes of Gautreaux, which are listed summarily by Orfield in the quotation I provided in the original post.

The researchers are still unsure, but they suggest that the differences between Gautreaux and MTO may be the result of the fact that Gautreaux was a court-ordered deconcentration of poverty for certain designated families, whereas MTO involved families chosen by random assignment.

In any case, there are three follow-up points I’d like to make.

First, the results of MTO are still good. It’s not that girls do so much better and that boys regress. The finding is “that boys in the experimental group fared no better or worse on measures of risk behavior than their controlgroup counterparts.” And while the experimental groups do not seem to have fared better economically–something that is truly puzzling–all studies point to a general enhancement of mental health for participants. The researchers that Klein cites conclude, “These adult mental health benefits may have important spillover benefits, particularly to children, since children have been found to have more problems in school and more behavior problems when their mothers are experiencing mental health problems.” The moral is that it is not at all clear that the benefits associated with Gautreaux and MTO, especially the mental health benefits, would be inferior tools in the fight against poverty when compared with the face-to-face counseling that Brooks favors. There does not seem to be enough data to compare these, so the results of MTO and the promised results of projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone do not seem capable of making the case for Obama and against Edwards.

Second, Gautreaux and MTO relied on the use of housing vouchers to re-situate participant families, and it is likely that if more sweeping legislation were to be drawn up, it would involve an expansion of the Section 8 housing voucher program. However, a recent case in Maryland County Court may work its way up the judicial ladder–or spawn similar rulings in other states–and undermine the voucher program. Ruling that Montgomery County cannot force a landlord to accept the vouchers, County Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson wrote “Simply put, the county cannot force the landlord to enter into a contract with the federal government where the landlord is unable to negotiate the terms. That is beyond the scope of the county’s power.” If the conservative courts, especially the Supreme Court, gets ahold of this case, it could be curtains for what Brooks is labeling the Edwards plan.

Lastly, there is something that Edwards has that Obama does not, and that is a freedom from Robert Rubin and the Clinton wing of the Democratic party. Rubin (among others) advised Clinton to shove NAFTA down the throats of Clinton’s base before tackling health care–thereby emptying labor unions’ lobbying coffers even before the fight for universal health care began. There have been reports of Obama’s connections to Rubinomics, including his support for the new centrist Hamilton Project. It is not at all clear whether Obama is willing to use the power of the federal government to invest in poor communities and, even more importantly, move toward a full employment that puts the breaks on trade agreements that undermine poor and middle class American families.

Despite entering the fray of inter-Democratic party politics, Brooks’s line is the standard conservative line: blame the “culture of poverty” that pervades Black communities and impedes economic success. This is why he likes the face-to-face aspect he claims to find in the Obama-preferred Harlem Children’s Zone. But this culture of poverty argument was put decisively to rest by Algernon Austin and Jared Bernstein in response to similar causal arguments forwarded recently by Bill Cosby. Austin and Bernstein write:

Black poverty fell 10.6 percentage points from 1993 to 2000 (from 33.1 to 22.5 percent) to reach its lowest level on record. Black child poverty fell an unprecedented 10.7 percentage points in five years (from 41.9 percent in 1995 to 31.2 percent in 2000).

The “culture of poverty” argument cannot explain these trends. Poor black people did not develop a “culture of success” in 1993 and then abandon it for a “culture of failure” in 2001.

What really happened was that in the 1990s, the job market finally tightened up to the point where less-advantaged workers had a bit of bargaining clout. The full-employment economy offered all comers opportunities conspicuously absent before or since.

Right now, if you want to bet on an economic policy that would support movements toward sustainable full employment–the Clinton boom of the 1990s, while reducing poverty, was generated by the stock market bubble which eventually burst to the detriment of many–then you bet on Edwards. Even without the tools used in Gautreuax and MTO, Edwards’s policy bag includes major economic policy tools that make conservatives like Brooks, and neoliberals like Rubin, shudder. The ills of poverty cannot be successfully fought with location-specific programs such as those favored by conservatives like Brooks. In fact, this is precisely why conservatives like Brooks favor such policies. They want to blame Black culture and take the focus off grander economic causes. Then, when face-to-face counseling for those in poverty fails to eliminate the ills of living in concentrated poverty, they can throw up their hands, having already dispatched the arguments in favor of more radical and sweeping measures.

While I’m still more confident that Edwards is more willing to buck the Clintonite/Rubin anti-populism in favor of moving toward sustainable full employment, there are heartening developments in the Obama camp. So I’m remaining open-minded. Obama is still very much a work in progress. But until he commits fully to rejecting Rubinomics–which means rejecting the austere and ineffective policy menu that Brooks claims to find in Obama’s proposals–I’ll stick with Edwards.

Howls of outrage (5)

2007 07 07
David Brooks on race

I made the mistake of reading a David Brooks column (“The End of Integration”) the other day. I can’t link to it properly, and you probably don’t care to read it anyway. But I can’t help making two points about it.

But first the column. Watch as Brooks bemoans the failure of integration, as part of a larger narrative in which the world is coming apart:

Over the course of the 20th century, the civil rights movement promised to heal the nation�s oldest wound. Racism and discrimination would diminish. Blacks and whites could live together, go to school together and gradually integrate their lives.

. . .

The progress in civil rights has not produced racial integration. Amid all the hubbub about last week�s Supreme Court decision, we were reminded that five decades after Brown, blacks and whites do not live side by side, even when they share the same income levels. They do not go to the same schools. And when they do go to the same schools, they do not lead shared lives. As several people noted last week, many educators are giving up on the dream of integration so they can focus on quality.

Brooks goes on to pose a false dilemma, and then chooses the worse of the two options:

Expecting integration, Americans find themselves confronting polarization and fragmentation. Amid all the problems that have made Americans sour and pessimistic, this is the deepest.

It could be that all we need is a change of leadership in order to rediscover the sense that we�re all in this together. That�s what the Obama and Bloomberg boomlets are all about. It could be we just need to work harder to overcome racism and tribalism.

But it could be the dream of integration itself is the problem. It could be that it was like the dream of early communism � a nice dream, but not fit for the way people really are.

And where do we turn to for clues about how people are? Oh man, you just knew he wouldn’t be able to help himself:

For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in small bands. Surviving meant being able to distinguish between us � the people who will protect you � and them � the people who will kill you. Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.

As dozens of social-science experiments have made clear, if you separate people into different groups � no matter how arbitrary the basis of the distinction � they will quickly begin discriminating against others they deem unlike themselves. People say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.

If that�s the case, maybe integration is not in the cards. Maybe the world will be as it�s always been, a collection of insular compartments whose fractious tendencies are only kept in check by constant maintenance.

There’s more to the column, almost every line of it stupid, but that’s enough for the points I want to make.

First, I haven’t seen actual numbers on this, but I was under the impression that interracial marriages and mixed-race neighbourhoods were increasingly common these days. As it happens, tomorrow Yoon and I will celebrate 6 years of marriage, almost all of it spent in the U.S., and we’re coming up to 11 years together. With the exception of this incident, we’ve had virtually no comment from anyone about the fact that we’re in a mixed-race marriage. And that’s no surprise, given how common white-Asian pairings are these days. Nor would this likely surprise Brooks. Black-white integration lags behind (in both marriages and in housing), if I understand correctly, but I suspect here that Brooks is conflating racial integration in general with the lack of progress in black-white integration in particular. (By the way, we live in Flatbush, and there are, I notice, a ton of black people here, along with the Russians, Pakistanis, Orthodox Jews, and other whites. But perhaps my neighbourhood is atypical.)

So this is my first point: Notice how much this messes up Brooks’ musing about the probable inevitability of it all. If the problem is more specifically lack of progress on black-white integration, then the explanation can’t be an innate and unmalleable tendency to xenophobia in general. Perhaps there are other causes. Perhaps they’re specific to blacks because of an enduring legacy of racism that the Brown decision only began to address. Perhaps these might even be the subject of columns more interesting than the one Brooks actually wrote.

Second, the musing about evolutionary psychology here is a textbook case of what I’ve complained about in the past. The appeal of the evolutionary story that Brooks trots out here is not just that it allows him to reach his alloted word count and go home early. It’s obviously that it ratifies his prejudices. True, Brooks presents his point in the speculative mode. But there is, I submit, a fine line between just tossing out an idea on the Op-Ed page of the NYT and advancing an idea couched in rhetoric that allows you to dodge responsibility for justifying it.

What a fucker. And he has the nerve to pretend that continuing problems in race relations in the US sadden and distress him. They don’t. If a social tendency distresses you, the last thing you do is provide a sloppy analysis of it and then retreat into sociobiological mumbo-jumbo. This is not a column that someone who gives a shit could write.

Howls of outrage (14)

2007 06 01
The Radical’s Third Way

Dani Rodrik writes (in partial response to all the talk of economic heterodoxy):

Every first-year graduate student learns the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics, which says essentially that provided a long list of conditions are satisfied, a market equilibrium is efficient in a particular way–that is, you cannot make someone better off without making someone else worse off. Now you can read the theorem in two, radically different ways. One is to say: “There you have it! We knew Adam Smith was right all along, but here it is stated in mathematically precise way and proved to everyone’s satisfaction. Now let the government get out of the way and have the markets work their magic.” The other is to say: “Wow, hold on! You mean we need so many conditions for markets to produce efficient outcomes? No externalities, no returns to scale, no market power, markets for everything and for every point in time… I better get my theorems of the second-best straight!”

Ah, isn’t there a third? Namely: Even if the real world *did* satisfy all those conditions, why in the world would we be happy with a situation simply because it was one where we could not make one better off (than they are now) without making another worse off (than they are now)? If this is what “producing efficent outcomes is,” as economists believe, then efficiency is compatible with grave injustice, as witness the situation in which we can’t make a slave better off without making his master worse off.

The fact that that this third response to the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics is not mentioned by Rodrik is evidence that the “radical” heterodox economists still have their work cut out for them. That fact that this third response is considered radical at all is really too perverse for words.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 05 14

In the NYT today, Jeff Zeleny writes:

Mr. Obama, an Illinois Democrat seeking his party�s presidential nomination, said in a television interview broadcast Sunday that he supported “rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the top 1 percent of people who don’t need it.”

But surely he meant that he supports rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the top 1 percent of people, who don’t need it. The comma makes a big difference.

God that was a fascinating post.

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 02 26

Great post about working in a welfare office.

Howls of outrage (4)

2007 02 02
More On Inequality (Domestic Edition)

The sensible worries about preserving equal political liberties and influence are why it has become fashionable for commentators on Rawls to point out that his relatively neglected (because many think it uncontroversial) first principle of justice–a principle guaranteeing equal civil and political liberties, as well as equal political influence–may require *more* equality than the more well known and more controversial “difference principle,” which permits economic inequalities so long as they serve (via incentive effects) to raise the absolute standing of the worst-off position.

And while we’re looking for aspects of one’s *relative* situation that may, as Tyler Cowen wants, affect one’s *absolute* position or level of well-being in a way that makes the inequality itself unjust, we should remember the recent discussions about how economic inequality *as such*–even after controlling for societal variations in median income–seems to be harmful to our physical health. These mechanisms are not yet well understood, certainly less well understood than the ones Plummer points to. But the correlations are compelling, and deserve mention in debates like this.

But setting aside these other potentially powerful arguments against inequality, there is a sensible, old-fashioned reason for being concerned with certain sorts of inequality itself. It is embodied in the following line of thought:

1. In a modern market economy people get ahead by working hard within various institutions that are coercively imposed by the state and which play a central role in assigning the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (See the great book by Dean Baker that Plummer cites for an account of some of these institutions and how they are severely biased in how they determine resulting economic shares.) It is in no one’s interests not to have such institutions, broadly construed. But they are coercively-imposed and life-shaping nonetheless, and these features matter greatly to the question of how any particular institutional arrangement can be justified.

2. In a market economy many of the benefits one gets or the burdens one’s forced to bear befall one through no fault or merit of one’s own: they are matters of supply and demand, both of which are densely social, that is, are determined by social factors one can’t possibly control or be responsible for. Yet these facts very often play a decisive role in determining one’s life prospects.

3. Although it is in no one’s interests to abandon a market economy for a non-market alternative, and although there are clearly certain salient respects in which one’s economic position can be influence by aspects for which one is responsible–hard work, say–the features pointed to in (1) and (2) above are important enough to lead us to question whether our *current* market arrangements do the best they can to recognize that our most fundamental civic relation is one of cooperation and compliance within the context of coercively imposed institutions, and that those institutions by their nature tend to distribute benefits and burdens in light of features that participants are not responsible for, and in light of features that some have purely because of the unchosen place they occupy within the coercively imposed institutional framework.

4. So if our fundamental relationship is one of cooperation, as it should be if we are seeking to control one another’s lives through dominant institutions; and if market institutions should do all they can to be responsive to what people have done to uphold these institutions and to contribute to their shared economic project through their compliance with its terms; and if market institutions make it harder for some than for others, through no fault of their own, to get ahead with the same talent and effort–since resources are typically needed to translate talent and effort into capitalist success–then we should be concerned to ensure, in the best way we can within a market system, that that citizens’ unchosen social position (i.e. the economic positions they are born into) do not lead to differential life prospects given equal talents and willingness to strive. When it does (and it in fact does), the problem with (some forms of) inequality is that it is unfair: although I contribute the same talented striving to our shared, cooperative economic project, I receive less social reward simply because you (say) were smart enough to choose the right parents, or because your parents were smart enough to support institutions that protect the already wealthy from bad market luck but which did not so protect my parents. (Again, See Baker’s book for more on this tactic.)

5. Therefore: when the fundamental relationship of citizenship is one of mutually respectful cooperation–as it again must be if that relationship permits my seeking to coerce you and determine your life-prospects through dominant social institutions–then the inequality of opportunity for success that is avoidably engendered by current economic arrangements is prime facie unfair. You get more through your talented and loyal striving than I get. And still Bruce Bartlett expects me actively to uphold these arrangements through my political loyalty, just because my income doesn’t fall? Typically I’m pissed at myself when my blogging gets in the way of my real work, when I throw up an eminently avoidable roadblock to the sort of success and progress that it is rational for me to want for myself. But apparently Bruce Bartlett and the “inequality doesn’t matter” crowd wants me to give my active and loyal support to arrangements that coercively impose roadblocks to my economic success, roadblocks that are jointly imposed by those to whom I must fundamentally stand as cooperator–not capitalist competitor–if those arrangements are to have any chance in hell of being morally justified. And it’s hard to see how I’m being treated with respect as an economic and political cooperator when the terms of “cooperation” lavish grossly more benefits on you than on me, despite our offering the same talented and loyal striving.

Howls of outrage (6)

2007 02 01
Speaking of inequality

Bradford Plumer rocks (free subscription required to read the link).

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2007 02 01
DeLong on Global Inequality

Brad DeLong has some thoughts about the moral importance of global inequality:

On the global level…[i]t is hard for me at least to envision changes in economic policies or in political arrangements over the past fifty years which would have transferred any significant portion of the wealth of today’s rich nations of the global North to today’s poor nations of the global South. I can easily envision changes that would have impoverished nations now in the rich North: Communist victories in the post-World War II elections in Italy and France would have done the job for those countries. I can easily envision changes that would have enriched nations now in the poorer South: the promotion of Deng Xiaoping to the post of China’s paramount leader in 1956 rather than 1976 would certainly have done the job for China. But alternatives that would have made the South richer at the price of reducing the wealth of the North? I find those much harder to imagine, without a wholesale revolution in human psychology.

I’m no expert on global justice, nor do I know enough of the empirical facts to take DeLong on here. But there are three points that I think are worth making in response to these reflections:

1. Language such as “at the price of reducing the wealth of the North” can evoke the thought that the North already has the wealth, and that the policy we’re contemplating is one where we redistribute some of that money to the South. Can evoke this. And when it does, the argument against redistribution gains undue plausibility, in light of strong moral considerations against upsetting legitimate plans that, say, the affluent have made, in light of their financial positions before they take up the question of what to do about the poor South. But the questions about what should have been done “over the past fifty years” include questions about how those people, back then, should have structured global economic arrangements. So if the arrangements that were in fact made took undue advantage of the South, or gave their interests in being treated with respect less weight than the North’s, then alternate arrangements should have been implemented. (Read Pogge for reasons to think that the North did and does fuck over the South in ways inconsistent with justice.) This can be true even if the gains from those unjust arrangements are now in the hands of innocent affluent people who have made legitimate plans on the basis of their expectations, plans which themselves may have some (not necessary conclusive) moral claim to protection.

2. In light of this point, our thinking about whether different arrangements are within the reach of “human psychology” must find the right target. The psychological strains of forgoing benefits in order to establish arrangements that are fair to all parties are quite different from the strains of giving up benefits that one innocently received (from parents, say) but which were originally acquired through unjust arrangements.

3. Finally, the psychological strains that one feels when giving up a current benefit can be sufficiently mitigated by the conviction that giving up that benefit is a requirement of justice or fairness. So the question of whether those people were unjustly exploited so long ago–a question whose answer should be informed by considerations (1) and (2) above–is an important one. If I come to believe with good reason that they were, then this fact about my current psychology may (and probably will) make it easier for me to do what I would have a hard time doing if I thought it was just a matter of kindness on my part, rather than a requirement of justice.

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2005 10 24

This is reassuring. The best explanation is surely that really smart people naturally gravitate towards politics:

Frist is now the target of a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission, although he insists that he did nothing wrong, and that he sold the shares to defuse concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Frist�s colleagues in the Senate, meanwhile, have remained noticeably quiet about the affair. Perhaps that�s because he�s far from the only senator to demonstrate uncanny investing smarts. Last year, Alan Ziobrowski, a professor at Georgia State, headed the first-ever systematic study of politicians as investors. Ziobrowski and his colleagues looked at six thousand stock transactions made by senators between 1993 and 1998. Over that time, senators beat the market, on average, by twelve per cent annually. Since a mutual-fund manager who beats the market by two or three per cent a year is considered a genius, the politicians� ability to foresee the future seems practically divine. They did an especially good job of picking up stocks at just the right time; their buys were typically flat before they bought them, but beat the market by thirty per cent, on average, in the year after. By those standards, Frist actually looks like a bit of a piker.


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2005 02 08
Uniquely American

On Feb. 4, 2005, President Bush was in Omaha, Nebraska participating in “a conversation on strengthening social security,” during which there was an amazing exchange:

THE PRESIDENT: Good. Okay, Mary, tell us about yourself.

MS. MORNIN: Okay, I’m a divorced, single mother with three grown, adult children. I have one child, Robbie, who is mentally challenged, and I have two daughters.

THE PRESIDENT: Fantastic. First of all, you’ve got the hardest job in America, being a single mom.

MS. MORNIN: Thank you. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: You and I are baby boomers.

MS. MORNIN: Yes, and I am concerned about — that the system stays the same for me.

[Interlude of President airily trying to explain that SS will stay the same after he dismantles it.]

THE PRESIDENT: And so thank you for asking that. You don’t have to worry.

MS. MORNIN: That’s good, because I work three jobs and I feel like I contribute.

THE PRESIDENT: You work three jobs?

MS. MORNIN: Three jobs, yes.

THE PRESIDENT: Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)

MS. MORNIN: Not much. Not much.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, hopefully, this will help you get you sleep to know that when we talk about Social Security, nothing changes.

MS. MORNIN: Okay, thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: That’s great.

So working three jobs to support oneself and one’s “mentally challenged” son is a “fantastic,” “uniquely American” achievement? You know what else President Bush has called “uniquely American”? Let’s see, there’s Harley Davidsons, and, oh yeah, the threat posed by Saddam Hussein:

I say uniquely American issue because I truly believe that now that the war has changed, now that we’re a battlefield, this man poses a much graver threat than anybody could have possibly imagined. Other countries, of course, bear the same risk. But there’s no doubt his hatred is mainly directed at us. There’s no doubt he can’t stand us. After all, this is a guy that tried to kill my dad at one time.

The existence of working poor in this country is what we get when our president sees a defanged dictator as a uniquely American threat, and sees a woman working three jobs–who is, as she puts it, “unfortunately” near retirement–as a uniquely American achievment.

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2005 01 18
Creating Ownership Societies, one exploitive technique at a time

Last weekend the WaPo ran a story on the United States’s churlish attitude toward aiding development abroad. Most of you already know that the US falls dead last among the world’s 22 wealthy nations in percentage of GDP consituting development aid in the world’s poorest regions. We send two-tenths of one percent of GDP abroad for foreign development, amounting to

approximately 15 cents per day per American, officials say, or less than $55 per person annually for aid to help the rest of the world.

I don’t have much here to add to criticisms of the US for this policy, though there are interesting debates within political philosophy over the nature and grounds of the proper level of sacrifice wealthy nations like the US ought to endure. I just wanted further to archive the following passage from the article, for it represents yet another manifestation of the malignant right-wing belief that free trade, unrestricted foreign investment, and pornographically expansive property rights are the due of plutocrats–this belief is here expressed through the laughable claim that libertarian politics is more important–developmentally–than development aid:

U.S. officials now say that the president never promised to fulfill the goal set in Monterrey [i.e., seven-tenths of one percent of GDP for development aid] anytime soon — or ever. The administration also now emphasizes trade and remittances by foreign workers in the United States back to their home countries as more important development aid. But those resources, say foreign policy analysts, often do not generate education, health care or infrastructure such as electricity, roads and irrigation for agriculture.

The line is likely to be, “Look, these brave souls have come to America, taken ‘jobs that Americans don’t want’, and sacrificed their standard of living here so that their families back home are not hungry. See, we’re empowering people to take their lives in their own hands. ‘Development aid’ is just another term for the stifling of progressive human energies and self-reliance.” It might occur to one that it’s an interesting ideology that identifies self-reliance with one’s necessary reliance on (to cite one prominent example) underhanded Wal-Mart executives for benefit-less, overtime-less employment.

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2005 01 12
Bush on Religion, the Presidency, and Fairness

Bush on religion and the presidency in the Washington Times (via Dan Froomkin):

“I fully understand that the job of the president is and must always be protecting the great right of people to worship or not worship as they see fit,” Bush said.

“That’s what distinguishes us from the Taliban. The greatest freedom we have or one of the greatest freedoms is the right to worship the way you see fit.

“On the other hand, I don’t see how you can be president at least from my perspective, how you can be president, without a relationship with the Lord.”

“I think people attack me because they are fearful that I will then say that you’re not equally as patriotic if you’re not a religious person,” Bush said. “I’ve never said that. I’ve never acted like that. I think that’s just the way it is.”

Just the way what is? Just what people say? Or just what it does in fact take to be patriotic?

Another tid-bit from a WaPo article today:

Bush argued that his Social Security plan would be a boon to black men, whose life expectancy is about six years shorter than that of white men. Under his plan, people could pass the private accounts from one generation to the next. “African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people,” Bush said. “And that needs to be fixed.”

Yeah, Bush, a real civil rights hero. Sadly, the “fairness” Bush refers to here is the same fairness that is lacking when Bill Gates (counterfactually) pays into the social security system but receives no check, you know, because he’s filthy rich already. It’s the same sort of fairness that is lacking when employers have to pay half of an employee’s social security contribution, instead of leaving the employer to “take ownership” of her own future well-being. (Don’t be naive: we all know that the “employer contribution” is paid for by reducing an employees wages.) It’s the same sort of fairness that is MIA when Wal-Mart is forced to pay minimum wages, instead of what they could pay the poor if they were granted full freedom of contract. It is not the fairness that ensures that citizens enjoy an equality of citizenship and respect within their political community. It is rather an atomistic, economic fairness that prescribes the trading of “economic equivalents for economic equivalents”, and nothing more. Don’t be naive: this Social Security hubbub is not about a system that is in crisis; it is about a system that does not jibe with the radical Right’s pornographically individualistic conception of fairness.

UPDATE: Today’s Progress Report tells of the cancellation by newly minted Republican governors in Indiana and Missouri of the collective bargaining rights of tens of thousands of state workers. You can also find there information about the Bush Administration’s Labor Relations Board’s bias toward business over the unionizing rights of workers.

UPDATE II: The Daily Show on Bush’s “African-American Male life expectancy” quote: “Sure, nevermind attempting to address the causes of lower life expectancy for African-American males. The solution is to just give them private retirement accounts, so that they can better enjoy their sunshine year.” (paraphrase)

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 12 20
Marmot and Egalitarianism

I suppose that it’s legitimate–especially during a slow-posting period–to point to the continued discussion of the ideas brought up in this post. Bill Gardner has made some final comments about social policy and the ways in which Marmot’s arguments support egalitarianism. In the comments section I question whether Marmot has offered anything new to egalitarian thought.

UPDATE: I’ve added to my comments on egalitarianism over at Bill’s site. I’d love to discuss these issues more, over there, or over here. This schtuff is my schtik, so I’d relish the opportunity to defend my positions.

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